“I Cannot Breathe”
by Oyin Oladipo
Strip me of this accursed Black skin, I want to live in peace!
I watched this video with emotions I can’t describe.
But, America why? England, why?
I watched this fully aware that I am Black, living in a White world.
I am Black, in a white college.
I am Black, in a white country.
I am Black – and to many I am wrong!
For this, I cannot breathe.
For how long will this injustice prevail?
Slavery, oppression, repression, murder… genocide.
Does God ever curse the oppressors of His people?
Or, does He simply look away?
If this is the God of the Exodus, isn’t it time he drowns Pharaoh?
Isn’t it time he destroys Pharaoh’s army of brutal oppressors?
If only for a moment, to allow me to take the breath of life.
But, nay – this white-washed, blue-eyed Jesus
appears to side with the oppressors – is He the oppressor!
They have changed the hew of his skin,
changed His hair and changed the colour of eyes.
He belongs to them, and they are His oppressors.
How can I believe when I cannot breathe?
I cry at the death of my people.
I weep beneath the weight of hopelessness
of being brown, labelled black, somehow – being born wrong.
Strip me please, strip this accursed melanin off of me;
for a chance to live in peace,
I’ll willingly shed this skin,
for a chance to breathe.
But, I cannot breathe,
my life is like a wobbly, fluttering flame to be snuffed out.
I have no power, I cannot breathe;
I die daily at the hands of those who hold the guns,
who hold the power, who hold the wealth, who hold the Bible.
I cannot breathe, because I am Black,
this White man’s knee remains ever constant on my neck,
blocking my airways, stifling my screams, ignoring my pleas,
I cannot breathe.
I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe.
God of my ancestors – where are you?
God of the heavens where are you?
As for this blue-eyed Jesus,
He and his comrades, they are silent,
And, their eyes have looked away.
This poem, by Oyin Olipado, an ordinand here at Wycliffe Hall – and, of course, the events, attitudes, history and pain that prompted it – challenge us at a profound level. The death of George Floyd has shocked and appalled us, but it is forcing us as a society, as a church, as a college and as individuals to examine ourselves, to identify and repent of the biases, conscious or unconscious, that we find there.
The Church is called to be a family that lives in defiance of the divisions that tear apart the human community – a family in which there is no division along the lines of race, class or gender. Every doctrine of the Church’s belief system – creation, fall, providence, incarnation, cross, resurrection, judgment, new creation – contains an assumption and a proclamation of our equality and a protest against all forms of inequality.
And yet the Church has so often supported structures of inequality, collaborated corrosively with power, colluded with colonialism. We who believe that all human beings are made in the image of God have so often presented the world with a God whom we have made in our own image.
As a college training future leaders of the Church, Wycliffe is determined to be an agent of change. We aspire to be less and less ‘a white college’. One of the objectives of our strategic plan is ‘to continue to promote ethnic diversity within the student body to reflect the global church’, and we know that we have much more to do. We long to equip the church with leaders who are aware of the pain that has so come to the surface since the death of George Floyd, and are committed to being that division-defying community we are constitutionally called to be.
This is a multi-faceted task. One immediate action is to face and try to understand better the racism that is so pervasive in our society and so seemingly intractable within the human heart. We shall be inviting experts to help us understand it – from a historical perspective, a psychological perspective, a sociological perspective etc., as well as further theological perspectives. And we wish to listen to voices that reflect the diversity we are seeking to become. To begin that engagement, here is the link to a talk on ‘Undermining Racism’ from our Senior Research Fellow, Professor N.T. Wright. In it, he shows that combatting racism and inequality is not an optional add-on to Christian faith and ethics, but is utterly intrinsic to the Christian task – springing as it does from the multi-racial and multi-cultural nature of the Christian vision.
There is, of course, so much more to be said, and we shall be exploring more of that in the coming academic year. And we shall be listening, not only to outside experts, but to our own students as we seek to reflect more richly that multitude from every tribe and language and people to which we are called to be a pointer and of which we are called to be a precursor.