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This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us

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Notes From Black Reads

Cole Arthur Riley is the talented creator of Black Liturgies, and her fresh voice and outlook is a lovely and absolutely welcome addition to the religion space.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In her stunning debut, the creator of Black Liturgies weaves stories from three generations of her family alongside contemplative reflections to discover the “necessary rituals” that connect us with our belonging, dignity, and liberation.

“This is the kind of book that makes you different when you’re done.”—Ashley C. Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Somebody’s Daughter

“Reaches deep beneath the surface of words unspoken, wounds unhealed, and secrets untempered to break them open in order for fresh light to break through.”—Morgan Jerkins, New York Times bestselling author of This Will Be My Undoing and Caul Baby

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Root, Library Journal

“From the womb, we must repeat with regularity that to love ourselves is to survive. I believe that is what my father wanted for me and knew I would so desperately need: a tool for survival, the truth of my dignity named like a mercy new each morning.”

So writes Cole Arthur Riley in her unforgettable book of stories and reflections on discovering the sacred in her skin. In these deeply transporting pages, Arthur Riley reflects on the stories of her grandmother and father, and how they revealed to her an embodied, dignity-affirming spirituality, not only in what they believed but in the act of living itself. Writing memorably of her own childhood and coming to self, Arthur Riley boldly explores some of the most urgent questions of life and faith: How can spirituality not silence the body, but instead allow it to come alive? How do we honor, lament, and heal from the stories we inherit? How can we find peace in a world overtaken with dislocation, noise, and unrest? In this indelible work of contemplative storytelling, Arthur Riley invites us to descend into our own stories, examine our capacity to rest, wonder, joy, rage, and repair, and find that our humanity is not an enemy to faith but evidence of it.

At once a compelling spiritual meditation, a powerful intergenerational account, and a tender coming-of-age narrative, This Here Flesh speaks potently to anyone who suspects that our stories might have something to say to us.

ISBN-13: 9780593239797

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group

Publication Date: 01-31-2023

Pages: 224

Product Dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for Black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest; and a project of The Center for Dignity and Contemplation where she serves as Executive Curator. Born and for the most part raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She once took a professor’s advice very seriously to begin writing a little every day, and has followed it for nearly a decade.

Read an Excerpt



A baby bursts out of a great Black womb saying, It is what it is what it is and he is my father.

My gramma used to say, Oh, chile, when your daddy came outta me, he tried to take his whole house with him. He cleaved to her insides like he knew what was his to have.

My father was born smooth. He glides and sways when he walks, cuts his hands through the air in meaningful arcs when he talks, like he’s in a ballet. I’ve never seen the top of his head because I’ve never seen him look down. He told me from a very young age, Keep your head up, relax those shoulders, look at that skin shine. He told me that Black was beautiful. It seemed to me that he was a man who would never think to apologize for his existence. Some people are born knowing their worth.

I was an anxious and insecure child. I’d tiptoe around with my shoulders cupping my ears like a perpetual flinch. I believe my father saw this in me and did what he could to drown out whatever primordial voice had told me to fold up my personhood into something small and negligible.

Every morning, he’d squeeze my sister and me in between his legs as he methodically parted our hair and laid grease on our scalps. He’d spend what felt like hours propped up in his chair, leaving us with braids stretching in all directions, barrettes and ballies gripping the thick black curls. When he finished, he would lick both thumbs and press them against our shaggy eyebrows and say, You look good, honey. Do you feel good? This was our ritual. And in time, it formed us.

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved has become a sacred text to me. It tells the story of a family, once enslaved, now making their way in freedom as they dwell with the ghost-force that haunts their home. When Morrison takes us back to the Clearing, the family’s matriarch, Baby Suggs, preaches a message to all the women and the men and the little children who lie in the grass after dancing, laughing and crying together. After leading them in a practice of liberation with their bodies, Baby Suggs says this:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either.

This is necessary ritual. From the womb, we must repeat with regularity that to love ourselves is to survive. I believe that is what my father wanted for me and knew I would so desperately need: a tool for survival, the truth of my dignity named like a mercy new each morning.

I cannot say with precision when I came to believe him—or if I ever truly have—but the knowledge began with my father and Toni Morrison and stretches back into God. The origin story of the world and the dark and stars that hold it is one of dignity. The divine is in us.

When I first heard that all humans were created in the image of God, I pictured God with a million eyes and a million noses and a million mouths. It was horrifying. What did this mean, all humans? If God walked in the garden of Eden, whose two legs did he walk with? Did they look like mine, with knees black and ashy?

It is not wholly unusual for individuals or cultures to imagine God as being like them in some way. Perhaps this is because we lack an imagination for a being who loves us and doesn’t resemble us. Things that are unlike us strike us as unsafe. When I encounter the unfamiliar—a new food, a stranger on the train—I may be intrigued, but I am nearly always cautious. I’ve no frame of reference for how it might hurt me, what compels it to violence or tenderness. If God is like me, then perhaps she becomes more predictable. Safer. But when we force our picture of God on another, or when God is presented as singular, we tend to colonize the image of God in others.

As a default, I imagine God as a white man. Even now that I know the tragedy and the lie in the image, it seems to be branded on my soul. I used to feel guilty because of this, but what else should be expected of me with all the stained glass and oil paintings? Does the church truly believe that God might look as much like me—gapped teeth and skin like glistening leather—as a white male? It has damaged many to think that the holiest being that ever was looks precisely like the man who kept our ancestors in bondage.

It takes time to undo the whiteness of God. When I speak of whiteness, I am referring not to the mere existence of a person in a particular body; I am referring to the historic, systemic, and sociological patterns that have oppressed, killed, abducted, abused, and discredited those who do not exist in a particular body. Whiteness is a force. It moves in religion in the same manner it moves in any sphere of life. In art, it might look like the glory of the American Western film and the lie of white bravado. In global development, the lie of the white savior. These are spiritual afflictions in and of themselves, but in religious communities, when whiteness becomes inseparable from the character of God, you’ll find customs such as evangelism equated with conquering, but admissible under the guise of “love.” You’ll find guilt-driven spirituality, which is obsessed with alleviating guilt and becoming “clean”—for whiteness always carries the memory of what it has done to those in bodies of color, and guilt is its primary tormentor. The irony, of course, is that this guilt cannot be relieved save by a rending of whiteness from the image of God (which the force of whiteness will never do).

In order to rend whiteness from the face of God, we must do more than make new images. We have to persist in observing and naming all the ways this force has obscured the face and character of God. The God I’ve known does not dominate; he kneels and washes his enemies’ feet. God does not make himself hero; he heals and works miracles both publicly and privately.

We also have to expand our understanding of how other cultures and peoples contain the divine. Does God slap the tambourine like my auntie? Do they put butter and salt in their grits?

Some theologies say it is not an individual but a collective people who bear the image of God. I quite like this, because it means we need a diversity of people to reflect God more fully. Anything less and the image becomes pixelated and grainy, still beautiful but lacking clarity. If God really is three parts in one like they say, it means that God’s wholeness is in a multitude.

I do not know if God meant to confer value on us by creating us in their own image, but they had to have known it would at least be one outcome. How can anyone who is made to bear likeness to the maker of the cosmos be anything less than glory? This is inherent dignity.

I do find it peculiar that humans have come to wield this over the rest of creation as though we are somehow superior. I don’t believe this to be the case. Sometimes I wonder if we knelt down and put our ear to the ground, it would whisper up to us, Yes, you were made in the image of God, but God made you of me. We’ve grown numb to the idea that we ourselves are made of the dust, mysteriously connected to the goodness of the creation that surrounds us.

Perhaps the more superior we believe ourselves to be to creation, the less like God we become. But if we embrace shalom—the idea that everything is suspended in a delicate balance between the atoms that make me and the tree and the bird and the sky—if we embrace the beauty of all creation, we find our own beauty magnified. And what is shalom but dignity stretched out like a blanket over the cosmos?

Table of Contents

Preface vii

1 Dignity 3

2 Place 16

3 Wonder 28

4 Calling 42

5 Body 56

6 Belonging 69

7 Fear 82

8 Lament 95

9 Rage 107

10 Justice 120

11 Repair 135

12 Rest 147

13 Joy 158

14 Memory 170

15 Liberation 182

Acknowledgments 197

Bibliography 201