Juneteenth with Dr. Claudia May

Host & Executive Producer – Latasha Morrison
Senior Producer – Lauren C. Brown
Producer, Editor & Music By – Travon Potts
Transcriber – Sarah Connatser


Social handles/links: Instagram: @LatashaMorrison  Twitter: @LatashaMorrison

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LatashaMMorrison/  Official Hashtag: #bethebridge

About Dr. Claudia May
Dr. Claudia May is a Professor and Director of the Reconciliation Studies Program at Bethel University and is a poet, scholar, and award-winning children’s book author. Her children’s book, When I Fly With Papa, received a 2019 Illumination Book Award gold medal in the Enduring Light Christian Children’s Book Category. This award acknowledges “exemplary Christian-themed books published since the year 2000.” When I Fly With Papa also earned a gold medal in the Midwest Book Awards’ Religion/Philosophy/Spirituality category and first place in the 2019 Purple Dragonfly Award Category: Picture Books, 6 and Older. Dr. May is a specialist in African American, Caribbean, and US Ethnic literature and received her doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a practical theologian specialist and spiritual director. She received her Master of Theological Studies from Pacific School of Religion/Graduate Theological Union. Dr. May is committed to honoring and receiving the wisdom, knowledge, and methods of engagement delivered by community educators committed to redressing social inequities and nurturing the holistic lives of diverse peoples. Valuing the healing power of stories stands at the center of her work.

The full episode transcript is below.

Latasha Morrison  0:00  

We are in June. June is not only the celebration of Be the Bridge anniversary. It’s not only the celebration of my birthday, which is also a holiday. (laughs) Oh wait a minute! Okay! And so I’m just finding out that it’s our special guest’s birthday too. So we’re gonna get all into that. But it’s also Juneteenth.

Narrator  0:29  

You are listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.

Latasha Morrison  0:34  

[Intro] How are you guys doing today? This is exciting! 

Narrator  0:37  

Each week, Be the Bridge Podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture with the goal of bringing understanding.

Latasha Morrison  0:45  

[Intro]…but I’m gonna do it in the spirit of love.

Narrator  0:47  

We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society, but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end.

Latasha Morrison  1:20  

[In Conversation] Oh, wow, Be the Bridge community. I am so grateful to have this phenomenal woman here before you today. This is an honor and a privilege for you guys to get to hear from her and to hear her words. And we have none other than Dr. Claudia May, who is the Professor and Director of Reconciliation Studies Program at Bethel University. She is here with us today. And she is going to talk about Juneteeth. And she’s also going to talk about her award winning book for children, When I Fly with Papa. Let me tell you guys, it is beautiful. And I met Dr. May when I went to Minnesota to speak at Bethel Seminary, and I’m not looking her go. I know she thought that I was just gonna meet her and that was gonna be it. But no. She is like on that list of…Let me tell you, I visited Bethel not long after my father passed. And this woman showered me with so much love and care while I was there. I know I’ve spoken in a lot of places and you guys have treated me well. But this woman loved on me like an auntie. And it’s exactly what I needed in the time, in the season that I needed it in. And so I am so glad to have her here. So welcome Dr. May!

Dr. Claudia May  2:46  

It is an absolute privilege to be here, Latasha Morrison! Absolute joy. I’m gobsmacked. I’m just awestruck. And for those who like, “Who is this Black woman with a British accent?” (laughter) This is very real. I was born and raised in England, of working class Jamaican parents. And I identify myself as Black British. And Black kids have been in England for many decades, centuries. So we’ve got a long history. But yeah, this is for real.

Latasha Morrison  3:23  

Yeah. So I knew you guys were gonna pick up on the British accent. And yeah, they were probably gonna think you were Jo Saxton or something like that at first. (laughs) But there are more. (laughter) There are more, okay, Black people with British accents. I’m so grateful. And she actually is in Minnesota where Jo and so many others are living. But, I wanted to have you on here to not only talk about Juneteenth…before we get into that, you said that your birthday is this month?

Dr. Claudia May  3:55  


Latasha Morrison  3:56  

You are a June baby, too?

Dr. Claudia May  3:58  

I literally just celebrated it.

Latasha Morrison  4:00  

When? What date?

Dr. Claudia May  4:01  

June 7th.

Latasha Morrison  4:02  

Oh! Well, happy belated! Happy belated! Okay, and mine is the 23rd. Mine is the 23rd. And as my auntie used to say I used to say, “the twenty tird, the twenty tird.” I couldn’t say three’s so. (laughs) So yeah. But you know, it’s so great. This is our birthday month and you know, Juneteeth, I did not want us to miss this. And I know last year, we were in the midst of, I guess what we want to call, a semi racial awakening. Because I wouldn’t say it was a full, necessarily, racial awakening. Because awakening, to me, this acknowledgement should bring about even more change. And so we want to see not just change of, I think change of mind and heart leads to change of systems. And so we need to see systems change. And so I think it’s a great start. But, you know, then comes the push back of everything, to the gaslighting, and the shifting of narratives, you know, that we see happening now. But I do feel like this is a kairos moment, that this is a God wink moment. And that many will miss it. You know? And I think last year for some people, the first time that they ever heard about Juneteenth was because a lot of this was happening in June. And, you know, a lot of the Black community, especially in the Texas area have celebrated Juneteenth. And so most people, even people who look like us, African Americans, Black Americans were awakened to, “Okay, what is Juneteenth again?” So I wanted to just remind you guys, what Juneteeth is and why we celebrate it before we get into that. So just imagine. (background noise – crickets chirping) Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He signs this in 1863, in January of 1863. And Texas was a new territory that was being developed. And some of the crop was cotton. I think some of the crop was tobacco. There may have been a little sugar cane. I don’t remember all the crops that was happening. But cattle ranching was another big thing that was happening, cattle ranching. (background noise – birds chirping and cows mooing) And so a lot of those cattle ranchers, there were Black people that were a part of that. Cowboys, you know, that were a part of that. That’s where we get the history of the Black cowboys which really started a lot of that tradition. And so, you know, Texas is kind of far from some of the other territories. And the history goes that either the messenger was either murdered (background noise – gunshot) on the way or either they knew and decided to continue to enslave because of planting season and harvest season. (background noise – indistinguishable chatter, horses walking, crickets chirping) And so, we don’t know that history exactly why, but it wouldn’t be for another two and a half years. So June of 1865. So that’s why we say, slavery as we knew it, enslavement, ended in 1865 and not 1863. Because all of us were not free. And until all of us are free, none of us are free. And so we have two and a half years. So I want to just set this up. So some of you think, I mean, not six months, not three months, but two and a half years. Imagine children were still continued to be born enslaved. (background noise – baby crying) People were continued to be sold. (background noise – yelling and loud noises) People were continued to be abused. Profit was still made in that two and a half years. Property was still stolen in that two and a half years. There’s a lot that happened in that two and a half years. And so at the time, where this message reached Galveston, Texas in 1865, imagine, imagine the rejoicing that took place. (background noise – cheering) So we call this our Independence Day. This is the day we celebrate, because not only was it July 4 1776. We were still oppressed. We were still enslaved. So we can connect to that as Americans and honor that. But our freedom didn’t come in 1776. Our freedom came in many ways in 1865. And so, we’re gonna just talk a little bit about the importance of it. And why is it important to celebrate, and I want to, Dr. May, who is the Director of Reconciliation Studies Program at Bethel. And we’ll talk a little bit about more of what she does, but I want her to, maybe let’s even do that. Let’s talk a little bit about what you do at Bethel and this program, and then you can go lead that into the importance of celebrating Juneteenth.

Dr. Claudia May  9:30  

In our program, we have a number of courses that students take: The Power of Story and Reconciliation. And they read a range of people’s words…Native American, African American, Asian American, European American, Latinx. And with that, they get this beautiful, nuanced interpretation of individual and community lives. That again emphasizes, to quote one of my favorite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who in her famous TED Talk talks about the danger of a single story. When I think about reconciliation, I think about the importance of acknowledging what has happened. The importance of confronting what has happened. And the importance of finding multiple ways to redress those inequities, to value the human dignity of all. I’m always reminded that when somebody told their story to Jesus, Jesus never said that didn’t happen. I just want to put that out there. He didn’t interrupt them when they spoke their truth. I find that interesting. And so that these sacred stories need to be heard and acknowledged, is extremely important in the reconciliation healing process. There are many who wants to bypass this and let’s just get to solutions, as you know, Latasha. But I love the fact that Jesus was a poor Palestinian Jew, observant Jew. And as such, he observed holidays that were central to the Jewish tradition. Holidays that acknowledged injustices and violations of the people of Israel. And that, in itself reminds us and gives us if you like, opportunities to, again, take time to stop and pause and acknowledge the sacred lives of those who have come before us. And I think with Juneteenth, we have to be very mindful that we do not pigeonhole the experiences of some to be representative of all. You know, you talk about even with those who heard about that they were free. When you read the interviews that were conducted through the Works Progress Administration, the WPA. There are some incredible testimonies by various individuals who talk about everything from being elated, dancing, there’s weeping. There’s actually also people perplexed, not knowing what this really means. I mean, this must have been a real shock to the system to be told that they were legally free. The other thing that I want us to think about is that freedom, and this is what Juneteenth, I think one of the many things that Juneteenth teaches us, is that freedom should not be confined to a hallmark of a legislative passing. So what do I mean by that? That there are many examples, examples of those who were enslaved…which is very important to say those were who were enslaved or lived through slavery or experienced slavery, but not to identify those who are labeled as chattel as slaves. It’s important that we recognize their human dignity by not labeling them with identities that were imposed upon them. But it’s interesting that as these the various gamut range of different responses that emerged out of Black communities in Texas and beyond in response to Juneteenth. There were, before then, there were slave owners, terror mongers, abuses of Black people who actually moved to Texas. So they could continue their atrocities, that they could continue to profit from free Black labor. And so, I think that there’s that, but there’s also this understanding that whether it’s through the Underground Railroad, where Blacks collaborated to secure their freedom. Whether it’s exercises like, sorry I wouldn’t call it exercises, practices, such as what is often called hush harbors, sacred harbors, or sacred arbor. This was a practice, spearheaded by Blacks who were enslaved, who recognized the importance of affirming one another by creating gatherings so they could just be. So they could worship, they could testify, they could dance, they could sing, they could laugh. And they would organize and gather at night in wooded areas. And they would take pots and wet blankets and drape them over tree branches (background noise – crickets chirping, water in a pot, singing) in order to absorb, if you like, the sounds that they would express so that slave owners and slave abuse mongers, terror mongers, would not catch on to what they were doing. These were multi generational gatherings where people could preach and testify and be and moan and lament. And sometimes when you go to Black churches, and you see people fall out, they get caught by the Holy Spirit. That is a part of I think, this sort of therapeutic expression, where you are basically allowing yourself to be fully alive to yourself in the context of community. I think it’s a real, there’s a real danger of saying that Black people are purely resilient and always strong. Because what that does, is that says that, that gives us the sense that Black people are innately, they can innately overcome anything. And no. Pain is pain. Pain is real. Those hurts are real. And I think as the hush harbors gatherings that those who enslaved spearheaded took a life of its own, in a sense, that allowed space for Blacks who were enslaved to affirm each other for their full and beautiful complex humanity. 

I always find it extraordinary that those who were enslaved created the spirituals. If you want to talk about agency, there were those who would say that if you’re chattel and less than human therefore, basically you’re not fit for purpose than just to do what master or missy tells you to do or the overseer. (background noise – singing) And what the spirituals reminds us is that these were composers, creators, theologians, critical thinkers who did their exegesis, did their hermeneutics through the spirituals. Okay? And sometimes I wonder when you, you know, when people say you can’t, you know, the people who aren’t Black and say, “Well, we can’t sing the spirituals because you know, it’s a Black thing.” I’m like okay, I’m gonna play to you a choir from Korea sing these spirituals. Close your eyes. And I dare you to say that these are Koreans who are singing these spirituals. Did this did the composers, artists, geniuses who created the spirituals, did they ever wonder that their songs will continue to bear fruit around the world?

We need to acknowledge pain and injustice, and we address that. But we also need to embrace the truth that Black people are contributors. They are not, we should ought not to reduce them to the persona of being just conduits of pain. And I think there is a danger of limiting Black people to this limiting identity that is often imposed upon them. You know, I talked about the hush harbors. And Albert J. Raboteau, a quite genius scholar, talks about the invisible institution in his book, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. And you know, it takes, it takes collaboration, it takes imagination, it takes curiosity, it takes agency to create a system without a system that is not seen, to if you like, take advantage of those who do not think much of you to your own benefit. There’s something genius about that. To me, there’s something genius about the dozens, where you can show your intellectual dexterity, your artistry, and your proficiency with being a wordsmith. Even Juneteenth. It’s a form of creolization, where a people could take this word and take it and make it their own and say, “No, we’re not going to wait for somebody to call it anything. We’re going to call it Juneteenth. That makes that makes sense to us, to our vernacular.” Okay. So there’s this beautiful, beautiful example. I think of Reverend Jack Yates, a former slave who, along with members of the Antioch Baptist Church and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, confronted the racism of those who wanted to control the movements and gathering of Black people in the 1800s after Juneteenth. Okay? After Juneteenth. What they did was, and this is what I love about, I have to say, that’s what I love most about my people now. (laughter) You know, if you don’t give us an award, we’re not gonna run and go, “Oh, my God, we’re not gonna get an Oscar.” We create our own award system. Okay?

Latasha Morrison  22:19  

We sure will. We celebrate us! (laughs)

Dr. Claudia May  22:21  

We celebrate us. We’re like, you know what, y’all just sit there, we’ll just do what we need to do. You know, Reverend Jack Yates and other members of these churches formed the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association. And you know what they did? They raised money to buy their own land. Come on now. In Houston, Texas in 1872. So that they could gather and celebrate Juneteenth. (background noise – singing) This church is, sorry, this park is called Emancipation Park. And this space currently has now earned heritage status. And for decades, this park, was because of segregation, was the only part of the Texas Public Parks that Blacks could congregate. So whatever the fears are in trying to douse celebration, temper celebration, rein it in, water it down, ignore it, render it invisible, there are many, many examples of Black people who said, “No.” (background noise – laughter, children playing, talking) That could be costly for your life. But they still said, “No, no, we’re buying a park. That is to create a park so that our people can express their freedoms in ways that makes sense to them.” We need to hear that, those stories. 

Latasha Morrison  22:42  

Whew. You are. I’ll tell you. So good! I’ve taken notes. I hope you guys that are listening, that you are taking notes here. I’m taking notes, even as I’m talking just so that I can remember and go back because there’s so much we don’t know.

Dr. Claudia May  24:27  

That’s true. And it’s amazing. One of my favorite authors, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many authors over the years, Toni Morrison was one of them. And I always tell the joke that when I met her, even though I met Toni Morrison many times, once I met her at this amazing conference in New York that basically had Black authors from across the world from Russia, Asia, England, it was everywhere. It was a who’s who. Okay. And now when I get to the elevator and Toni Morrison’s in there (background noise – elevator ding) I just I said to her, I just started to cry. And I said, “I really love your work. When I read The Bluest Eye, I got to page 13, and the mother was rubbing Vicks into the daughter’s chest and then you introduce the character’s name Claudia,” and I dropped a book, (background noise – book hitting the ground) “and that gave me context.” And she just looked at me with such gentleness and she said (background noise – elevator ding) basically, “Oh, it’s okay. It’s okay.” But you know, she, if you want to talk Black genius, Black girl magic, Toni Morrison right there. And she points out, when you talk about the ways in which Juneteenth embraces hope in liberation and the potential of Black communities and individuals to live and thrive, and to invent, and to contribute to our world in the midst of adversity. She gives one of the one of the reasons reasons why, I think, she says why there’s almost a resistance to embracing those narratives is that she says there’s quote, “the hunger for other people’s pain.” And the other people’s pain is very rooted in Black pain, there’s a hunger for it. It’s almost this insatiable, bottomless appetite that wants to hear more about our pain than about our contributions. And it’s the kind of over fascination with pain that diminishes rather than upholds our sacred humanity. And, you know, and then my go-to’s, one of my major go-to’s is James Baldwin, another genius. And one of the things he said is, “a baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit.” Okay, let me just read that again, because when you have a genius here you kind of have to soak in it.

Latasha Morrison  27:33  

Right. Okay, read it slow, we have to take our time with it.

Dr. Claudia May  27:37  

Just take a deep breath everybody. Okay? Cause a genius is a coming in a Black man, okay: “A baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit.” I want to consider that Black children were considered, during slavery and some may even argue beyond that, as being conduits to sustain someone else’s profit. There are ways in which our image, identities, contributions are appropriated and mis-appropriated for the benefit of a few, for the profit of a few. I just want you to think about that. And it’s, it’s very fickle, this desire to possess our narratives, our histories in a way that doesn’t honor us as contributors who can speak for ourselves. It you know, it would never occur to me to think that I could speak on the behalf of Native American experiences or Indigenous people’s experiences without even asking for their permission whether I could do so. Do you know what I’m saying? I think there’s a sense of entitlement that many can feel that they have the right to take advantage of our lives for their own profit. That’s a hard thing to come to terms with. But it’s amazing how much our bodies still sell. You slap us on a book, an image of us in a book, and people go, “Yippie yi yay.” You know? But, and this is where I want to talk about in terms of children’s books, is that you know, in the Christian world, you have children’s books, who have Black images of Black girls, fewer Black boys, but who are the authors? Who are the illustrators? (background noise – slow instrumental music) Are we aware that many, many who are writing children’s books that place Black children at the center of the stories may not get the same marketing advantages, publicity as those who are not of that race of people that are being represented in these publications. It’s something to think about, just how these images are appropriated in ways that, I think, speaks to what I call the hoarding of supremist ideas and ways of being that doesn’t invite room for others to share in that. Think about going back to Emancipation Park, and how these people pulled their money together to create, to buy this land, to have this park so others could celebrate Juneteenth. Think about what happened in Tulsa, Black Wall Street. I’d be really thinking about this, and I think were there white business people who knew what was going on? Could they have said, “Okay, all right. Either we’re gonna just let the authorities know who did this…” Because, you know, people knew who did this, right? But that said, “Okay, we’re going to put our money where our mouth is, and we’re going to spend some money to rebuild, help rebuild, to give, to bring people to justice. And we’re going to do a jubilee. We’re going to help to rebuild, which frankly, shouldn’t have to be rebuilt. But we’re going to do sacrificial giving.” That doesn’t even put us in the frame of acknowledgement of what we did. We’ve got choices here. We really do. With what we do with our money, who we support with our finances. So when I think about children’s literature, I’m not saying that people from different races can’t engage with various narratives. I’m just saying, let’s create room for folks to be able to speak their truth on their own terms. I’m not saying you just need one Black person to talk about one Black child in a book. Now, going back to to Amanda Ngozi Adichie, we need a variety of stories

Latasha Morrison  32:48  

Yes, yes.

Dr. Claudia May  32:48  

speaking about a variety of experiences that shows us that Black people are not monolithic. But we’re complex human beings and multilayered. We need to see that.

Tandria Potts  32:59  

[Voiceover] This is so good. Aren’t you loving this conversation? We’re gonna take a quick break. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

Latasha Morrison  33:13  

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Tandria Potts  34:54  

[Voiceover] Thanks for staying with us. Let’s get back to our conversation. 

Dr. Claudia May  34:58  

Okay, so some of the principles for me of Juneteenth, as I said before, acknowledging the injustices that we have confronted and ignored and lived through, to learn about and celebrate the histories and contributions of Black people, and applaud our lives and gifts and achievements. To quote Lorraine Hansberry that we not only are just young, but we’re “young, gifted and Black.” That we have spearheaded contributions and opportunities for others to flourish. So there is in many Juneteenth gatherings, you will have people who will read poetry, sing songs, there’s going to be food thrown down for sure, okay? (laughter) They’re hungry. Okay? Okay, you’ve got people who will testify. And when I think about hush harbors, sacred arbors, I think about how that in many ways, the spirit of that lives on in Juneteenth where people can fully be themselves. And so the remembering, acknowledging, celebrating, embracing of Black joy in a way that is not demeaning, I mean, hopefully, we’re doing this in a way that uplifts, affirms, even restores. And so when I think about, and the arts are apart of that, so I think about hip-hop and spoken word and I teach a Hip-Hop, Spoken Word, and Reconciliation class. And that class, for me is a phenomenal class because we get to read scholarly articles that talk about how hip-hop has enabled people from the Middle East, Asia, Latinx communities, and Central America, African, and Caribbean to find voice and truth through this form. And I often say to my students, y’all need to travel, especially my Black students, y’all to travel to see the impact we’re having on world culture. Juneteenth acknowledges those kinds of contributions. And what I love about hip-hop, and I have to give a big up for because DMX just passed. And one of the things you know DMX’s life for me is one to celebrate and also to lament. There’s a tension, a beautiful tension there for me. But one of the, you know, the testimonies that was shared for me is just like, for me, the spirit of Juneteenth. Where people said because he spoke his truth, especially around issues of mental illness and hardship or many of his songs that also engaged with biblical scripture and ideas, they said, “I found hope in that; I saw myself in his songs; I felt seen and heard.” Latasha, you know, when we see other Black folk and you give the nod, that is saying, I see you. I see you. You’re here. Think about where the roots of that come from. Our artistic expressions give multiple people’s ways to access what their truth means to them. I think about Black scientists, like Otis Boykin, the 20th century engineer who invented electrical resistors used in computers, pacemakers, and missile guidance technology. I think about Samuel P. Massie who was a 20th century chemist who contributed to the development of therapeutic drugs. I think about Alice Ball, who was born in 1892, who developed a treatment that became known as the Ball Method that was considered an effective treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century. I think about the blues. (background noise – music) Well, let me tell you something. I love me some blues because the blues are like folk, they didn’t do double consciousness now. The blues composers were like, they didn’t even think about white gaze. They were like, okay, we’re just gonna do what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna talk about loving my man, loving my one. You know, even church folk, some church folks didn’t like their music. But we don’t care. We have to speak what we want to speak on our terms. So I think about Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and BB King. And all these innovators, these pathway makers that didn’t apologize for our existence, didn’t try to do respectable politics. They flouted it. Love it! Love it.

Latasha Morrison  40:37  

Taking our joy. And what I like about blues is they took their pain. And, you know, and then it’s like layered with joy. So it’s like you feel both when you listen to the blues. It’s like, there’s just this pain that you feel this suffering that you sense, but this joy that you experience. And that is like, I mean, first of all, that’s brilliance.

Dr. Claudia May  41:06  

It really is.

Latasha Morrison  41:07  

But it’s more than brilliance, it’s survival.

Dr. Claudia May  41:09  

It is survival. And it’s also thriving.

Latasha Morrison  41:12  

Yes, yes.

Dr. Claudia May  41:13  

I think, you know, to thrive you have to also acknowledge what you need. To thrive you have to acknowledge that you have desires. And so I think, to thrive that means that you don’t diminish yourself in order to contort yourself to fit to somebody else’s agenda of what you should become. That’s the kind of freedom that blues, I think, gives folk. And I think about the photographer Gordon Parks, and I’ve got one of his, he’s got many amazing photos. But there’s a 1963 photo, entitled Boy with a June Bug. And it captures this Black boy lying on the ground cushioned by grass. And he ties a string to a June bug, who is walking along his forehead and the boy closes his eyes. He is relaxed. He is not afraid. He is at one with nature. (background noise – camera clicks) That is something to celebrate. Gordon Parks had this way of using a camera to capture the human dignity of Black people. We must see the images of Black people being lynched. We must see the images of Black people who were burned alive by those who left their church service to have a picnic to see a lynching. (background noise – fire roaring, people talking) That’s real. That’s very real. But we also must see the pictures of the boy with a June bug. We also must see and hear stories and poetry by people like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Danez Smith, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Finney, Lucille Clifton, and Langston Hughes, who give us this range of poetic voices for us to embrace, to sit, to ponder, to engage with, to be perplexed by. I want to read to you Langston Hughes, his poem entitled Freedom. (background music – slow instrumental music) “Freedom will not come today, this year. Nor ever. Through compromise and fear. I have as much right as the other fellow has to stand on my two feet and own the land. I tire so of hearing people say Let things take their course. Tomorrow is another day. I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread. Freedom is a strong seed planted in a great need. I live here, too. I want my freedom. Just as you.”

Latasha Morrison  44:53  

Wow. Beautiful, beautiful. And that is called Freedom by Langston Hughes. Part of the Harlem Renaissance.

Dr. Claudia May  45:02  

Come on now, that continues to keep on giving and giving. These are the seeds of fruits, if you like. That we continue to learn from our ancestors, which is again, what Juneteenth reminds us that we are interconnected, and that those in the past can contribute to our present. We don’t have to be confined to our ancestors. But our ancestors, the cloud of witnesses shaped us, they can inform how we engage with the injustices that we encounter. And we can use various forms to do that. I must actually pick up Lecrae as one of the examples. Because Lecrae, I teach Lecrae a lot in my classes, and his books, Unashamed and I am Restored are just stunning. And one of the things I’m reminded with Lecrae is the importance of us as Christians to keep it real. But we can be punished for doing so. We can be punished for changing our mind, for changing our course of what we think. And there are those who want to pigeonhole us into a sort of a prototype of a good Christian, and I actually was convicted. This is a public apology to Lecrae. I remember I met Lecrae once and, you know, and I picked him up, which I was happy to do, and that was genuine. But after reading his books, I realized did I allow him to be fully human, in the sense of, to be able to share I’m having a bad day. I’m struggling with this issue. And I have learned since then, to stop saying to people, man of God, woman of God, because when we do so, what we do is we can invite a way of limiting the human capacity to be fully themselves, at least from the perspective of how we treat them. Does that make sense?

Latasha Morrison  45:10  

Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Claudia May  46:09  

We put folks on a pedestal. We don’t allow them to be fully human, even if they are. And so this allows me to kind of move into my children’s book.

Latasha Morrison  47:18  

Yeah, yeah. This is good, though. This is good. Go ahead. I want to hear, you can share some stories around When I Fly with Papa, and you’re connecting it all. So this is good. You got it!

Dr. Claudia May  47:33  

Well, you know, the idea that we can experience emotional freedom with God, and have a black girl be at the center of a narrative that shows us how that can be done is really important to this book. It it says that Winnie, and that’s her name, and her toy Bear Bear Bear, yes, it’s an original name, can teach us how we can relate to God. Winnie does not have to smile when she relates to God. She can actually be angry with God. Which is for me, drawing from the book of Job. I love when Job says yeah, when his friends are like advising him about his life and stuff. He’s like, you know what y’all are just, be quiet. Okay, I’m paraphrasing here.

Latasha Morrison  48:21  

Dr. May’s version! Go ahead. (laughter)

Dr. Claudia May  48:23  

This is my translation. You know, but he was like, you know, actually I’m gonna argue with God. I love that. Argue with God. He had the audacity to say that out loud and do it. And, and Winnie does that. She plays with God. I want to throw this with even with Juneteenth. I think about how would Winnie respond to Juneteenth with God? She would say, “Come on, Papa!” She calls God Papa. “Come on Papa. Let’s do the Soul Train dance together. Let’s eat. Let’s have barbecue together, let’s sing Lift Every Voice and Sing.” She wouldn’t disassociate herself from God, she would invite God in to those various experiences. Winnie does not cultivate a performance based relationship with God, but a relationship that is mutually honoring and collaborative. (background noise – slow instrumental music) It’s not a top down relationship. She can be fully herself with Papa. She can be sad; she can be angry. And I think it’s important that Black girls and boys are allowed to be angry, to be able to say, “I’m not happy today.” Because there’s reasons for that anger. So you know, and this God that she encounters, you don’t see God physically. You may see wisps on the page, but that allows children to have an open idea of how to relate to God. We sometimes spoil God for children by saying, “You’ve got to see God in this way. If you recite all the scriptures, then you’ll get close to God.” I’m not against memorizing scripture now. But I’m just saying if that becomes a primary way of you connecting with God, you may be losing, you may be limiting your children’s understanding of how to experience God in multiple ways.

Yeah. So good! I wanted to, I don’t know, if you do you have a copy of it right there?

I do!

Latasha Morrison  50:38  

Oh, and so this page right here, can you read this? This page, I want you to read the page because what you just said, if we’re not teaching our kids to connect with God in other ways, other than scripture, you know. Also through prayer, and I love that I think that page like kind of paints a picture of that. And I just want to hear you read it and the beauty of your words. And so for those of you if you hear just the depth of Dr. Mays knowledge, it’s because she’s a specialist in African American, Caribbean, and U.S. ethnic literature. And so all of this, as your knowledge of Lecrae, and when you hit DMX, I thought you were about to throw a line of DMX. And I was like, I was waiting for it. (laughter) And I was I was like, because I remember DMX talking about trust. And one of the things he talked about, he said, you know, I can’t I can’t, I can’t waste my energy and distrust and not trusting people. He said, you know, he said, the thing about trust is you have to trust that a liar is gonna lie. You have to trust that a thief is gonna steal. You have to trust that a murderer is gonna kill. You know, and just the way he put that, and he was like, because I can’t I can’t be burdened by mistrust because it takes too much energy. So I’m gonna trust you to be who you are. It was just like, that’s a whole nother level. Like, that’s a genius level.

Dr. Claudia May  52:29  

Somebody needs to write a dissertation on DMX. But if anybody writes a PhD dissertation on him, give me some credit. Okay? Dr. May’s idea. But DMX. I mean, I’ve got this song in my head. I mean, Who We Be is a genius song. It’s just like, I mean, he just drives it home. Various identities. I’m like, oh my God, the man was something else. 

Latasha Morrison  52:57  

Yeah. I love that. I was waiting. I was waiting. I was like, oh, she brought the drop some DMX lines. This is gonna take everybody out. I love it! (laughter) 

Dr. Claudia May  53:14  

You know, I yeah, I’ll read this. Oh, there’s so much to share.

Latasha Morrison  53:18  

I know, we have to do this again! Because there’s just so much, you guys see. There’s just so much information that you have and that you embody and just how you bring literature to life, the different forms of literature to life. And your book When I Fly with Papa is so beautiful, and it’s definitely something I recommend for you guys to purchase. Not just for your children, but for yourself. Like this is a beautiful book for yourself to remind you of just the intangible things, you know, that we experience with God. And just a way to be present with God in everything. And I think that’s what I, it’s like practicing the presence of God in everything we do and say and who we be, and how we are being. And so, just just read a little bit, just give a little taste.

Dr. Claudia May  54:20  

But before I say that, I have to be very clear, you can purchase my book from theclaudiamay.com.

Latasha Morrison  54:27  

Yes. And we will we will put all of that in the transcript, and we’ll put all that in the information so that people know where to purchase it. Okay.

Dr. Claudia May  54:39  

And I before I read your favorite part, I do want to just share a few stories. I got a little bit more time before I’m done.

Latasha Morrison  54:45  

Okay, go ahead, go ahead. You’re good.

Dr. Claudia May  54:46  

The reception to this book. Foster children who were taken out of their home because their mother couldn’t afford affordable housing for them, were staying at this foster home. And my friend gave the foster parent a copy of my book. And these children wanted this book to be read to them several times a day. What that conveyed is that they found comfort in the God who could be present with them in the midst of adversity. An adult customer who bought it for her deceased father because she called him Papa. A grandparent who reads to her grandchild and when the wind is described she brushes her skin with the back of her hand, gently. And that tenderness, that loving touch, is a reminder that God wants to be close to us. A Muslim woman who asks, “can my children access this book?” and I said, absolutely. Reading groups who are reading this as part of an understanding that they can engage with God in ways that doesn’t limit them. Somebody who said that they can’t rock with Bible right now. But for some reason, Winnie was part of their devotional. Or a woman who left the church and Christianity to explore other religion and belief systems, but was captivated by Winnie, who shows her various emotions with God and said if she had had this book as a child, she would have had a more honest relationship with God. We’re reminded not to shut each other down when we have our questions, our doubts, our fears when we relate to God. So let me read the section that you want to be to read. Okay?

Latasha Morrison  54:46  

If that’s the section that you want to read. (laughter)

Dr. Claudia May  55:47  

I’ll read this one and I’ll read a last one. So the first one. (background noise – instrumental music) “When I fly with Papa, we prance and dance. The breeze tickles our skin. Our shrieks skip across the sky. Laughter beats in my heart. Sometimes Papa and I create sandcastles out of clouds. Sometimes we somersault over a rainbow. Sometimes I hang on to his neck as we soar above the sea.” Then I’ll read a time when Winnie is sad. “Papa snuggles close to my worries. Then rocks them in his arms when I cry. Papa cradles my tears. And as his tears join mine he tames the storms in my mind with a shhhh. And in my time, I look into Papa’s eyes. Papa looks at me. In the hush of calm. My heart beats slow. Babum. Babum. Babum. Silence sleeps on my tongue. Peace smiles. I am home.”

Latasha Morrison  59:05  

Wow, that. First of all, I hope you’re developing another series. I hope that it’s also going to be on Audible where you’re reading this series. Like, this is so beautiful. How are you developing When I Fly with Papa series?

Dr. Claudia May  59:27  

So a Spanish translation is in the works. I’m really excited. And that is due to come out at the end of the year. A new book as part of the series will come out next year, which will be called When I Garden with Papa. And it really speaks to, again, something as Black folk we have connections to the land but often times that’s not acknowledged and celebrated. And not just of workhorses of the land, so to speak. But people who are nurturers of the land, cultivators of the land, respecters of the land. And that is something that Winnie will show us in her connection with Papa. But there also be some other parts of this series where will deal with hard stuff. And that’s going to be important. But I do think that we need to find, create books that allow children to see themselves and their concerns in a way that doesn’t retraumatize them, but afffirms their experiences. So all of this will be on my website theclaudiamay.com. There’s a cute video of the book, that I think y’all will like.

Latasha Morrison  1:00:40  

Wow, that’s great. So we need to go to theclaudiamay.com. And you can check out all the things about When I Fly with Papa, and also find out more information about Dr. Claudia May. And I mean, this is went by so fast, like we could have talked for another hour, this just so much. But thank you for giving us a deeper view into Juneteeth and it’s connection to our history and to us as people. And now if someone, if a white person, an Asian person, you know, a Latinx person is listening to this, someone other than a Black person. How would you say that they can celebrate Juneteenth with us? Because, you know, we are very inclusive in our celebrations. We don’t want you to take over. We don’t want you to take over. But we love to be with and have people join with in this shared community event. And so I know those are happening in communities all around as well. How would you suggest that someone of a different ethnic background, of a different race, to join in in the Juneteenth celebration?

Luckily, you know, across many states now around the country, there are celebrations in public parks, churches. So I would literally just Google and see what Juneteenth celebrations are out there. Because you’ll find a rich resource there. And you go in there respectfully, you know, but also, if you’re a prayerful person is, you know, learn from Winnie. Bring God, Jesus, Holy Spirit with you. Be part of the celebration, right? And, be present and help to rejoice in the sacred and precious lives of Black people. Look to libraries as well, and community centers for books that explore the lives of African Americans. That’s something that you can also pass on. And then the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has a wonderful resource of different ways that you can celebrate Juneteenth, not only in community centers, but in your home, in your neighborhoods. So there are all kinds of ways I think that Juneteenth can be acknowledged. We’re not celebrating slavery. We are acknowledging the sacred lives of those who lived through slavery.

Yeah, say that again. So people understand that, you know, Juneteenth is not a celebration of slavery by any way. Hopefully nobody got that. Yeah.

Dr. Claudia May  1:03:50  

We’re not celebrating terror, abuse, violation of the human holistic self. We’re not celebrating that. We are acknowledging that it happened. We are acknowledging those injustices continue. But we’re also taking the time to breathe and rejoice in the ways in which Black people will continue to be contributors to our societies and our world at large. We celebrate their human, precious, sacred presence.

Latasha Morrison  1:04:25  

Yeah. Amen. You know, we never close out a out a podcast in prayer but I told you to go with the flow with me today. And so, there’s a lot happening, you know, with our community that’s listening to this podcast. Some of them are encouraged. Some of them are discouraged. Some of them are experiencing a disconnect from family because of their belief system and how they’ve reconstructed and because they’ve changed their mind about things. Some of them feel outcast, some of them have been cut off from parents. Some of them are losing their parents to information. Some of our community of People of Color are just feeling exhausted, you know, and still feeling unseen and unheard. Can you just close us out in in prayer, as we look to celebrate Black achievement and survival and excellence on Juneteenth?

Dr. Claudia May  1:05:49  

I’d be glad to. (background noise – instrumental music) God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Divine One, Holy, Trinity. We thank you that you can be ever present to us in ways that we don’t always fully understand, but that you are ever ready to listen, to nurture, to care for, to guide, to be present, to allow us to feel what we feel what we feel. Thank you for creating space so we can just be. Thank you that there was just not one way of relating to you, of being with you. God, there are many that are hurting. There are many who do not know what to do. There are many who are angry. There are many who are weary. There are many who refuse to succumb to despair. And yet, there are those of us that lament. Help us in the midst of those various emotions, to learn from you and others of how we can live in the liberating love you created for us. Help us to experience freedom in being loved by you, nurtured by you, honored by you. We need you. We need each other. Help us to know how to live through our pain so we can be fully present to the ways in which healing can bring new life to any facet of our lives as a community. We give all of the joys and sorrows and the love to you, in honor of you. God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Latasha Morrison  1:09:16  

Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to have you and to introduce you to the Be the Bridge community. And thank you for all the work that you’re doing in the space of reconciliation and so much more. So, thank you so much for gracing us with your words and your wisdom today.

Dr. Claudia May  1:09:39  

Thank you.

Tandria Potts  1:09:40  

[Voiceover] Go to the donors table if you’d like to hear the unedited version of this podcast.

Narrator  1:09:53  

Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge Podcast. To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization and or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BetheBridge.com. Again, that’s BetheBridge.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the senior producer. And transcribed by Sarah Connatser. Please join us next time. This has been a Be the Bridge production

Transcribed by https://otter.ai