From self-help books, Gifty knows that it’s necessary to talk about pain to move through it. But the only person she could talk to about Nana was her mother, who couldn’t handle it. She wrote to God about it instead, and her journal entries grew frantic. When she wished that Nana would die, she meant it. But in the morning, she destroyed the entry hoping that God would forget her wish. When Nana relapsed, she felt responsible.
Gifty intellectually understands what she needs to do to address her childhood and its traumas, but she continually finds herself unable to do it. Forced into an adult, caretaking role in her family at a young age, she can’t talk with her mother. And, after her friends’ parents began to consider Nana a bad influence, she learned that talking to anyone outside the family was also unallowable. The only outlet she had left was God.
After Nana’s relapse, Gifty’s mother got increasingly unrestrained at church. This fed gossip as people slowly realized that Nana’s injury had turned into something more sinister. Gifty once overheard two ladies gossiping about it and one said, “their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs.” Adult Gifty would have schooled them about how race isn’t a factor in addiction. But 10-year-old Gifty was ashamed.
The lack of real support offered by the church becomes increasingly obvious as Nana’s addiction deepens. So does the reason for this lack of support, the racism expressed by the two ladies Gifty overhears. Racism also seems to tinge the congregation’s reaction to her mother’s increasingly frantic practice of her faith. As a child, unfortunately, she didn’t have the knowledge to counteract these narratives; her mother even refused to acknowledge Mr. Thomas’s racism.
Now, Gifty understands much more about the institutionalized and individual racism she experienced. But as a child, she didn’t have the language to identify or explore her self-loathing. As a recent immigrant, her mother didn’t realize that white and Black churches in America were fundamentally different. It took Gifty a long time to identify the wounds caused by going to an all-white church where people disparaged “[her] kind.”
From her adult perspective, Gifty is able to see how the subtle and not-so-subtle messages she got from her church harmed her. But as a child, she didn’t know how to protect herself and thus was further traumatized. Because the adults around her in her church were the primary sources of authority in her life, she naturally internalized their racism.
Overhearing the women’s words, Gifty wondered where God was in a church that couldn’t see her humanity or her brother’s and didn’t believe that he could be healed. That night, her journal entry asked God to make Nana better to show everyone, even as she knew that God didn’t work that way. She just wanted to disprove the unspoken rule that said her Black family was less worthy than everyone else. She didn’t yet realize it wasn’t a real rule.
Overhearing the comments about her brother being susceptible to addiction because of his race solidifies the discomfort Gifty first felt in youth services when P. T. blithely assured Nana and Gifty that God would condemn to hell people who weren’t Christians even if they hadn’t had an opportunity to convert. In some way, then, even as a child she understands that there’s nothing she can do to disprove the racist beliefs of her community, even though she can’t help but try to prove them wrong. The seeds of her loss of faith in God are planted in her knowledge that even God can’t protect her and her family from the unfair treatment of his believers.
After his relapse, nothing could protect Nana from people’s hate. When he was helping the team win, Pastor John and the church were quick to give the glory to God, but when he became an addict, they were just as quick to blame him for the team’s losses. Gifty remembers them booing in the stands.
The way that the congregation and the larger community turn on Nana underlines the racist atmosphere Gifty and Nana grew up in. Nana only seems to have been appreciated when he was doing something valuable to others, such as winning soccer or basketball games. But even then, he wasn’t given full credit: the glory for his athletic abilities went solely to God, while the blame for his addiction fell squarely on his own shoulders. Nor do any of the church members show the grace and forgiveness appropriate to their faith when Nana strays. In contrast, although they gossip, everyone seems to quickly forgive the pastor’s pregnant teenage daughter. Although she can’t yet see the racism behind these differences, as a child, Gifty can still see the hypocrisy.
Gifty clung to the Biblical words telling people to love God and to love their neighbors as they love themselves. She copied the verse dozens of times in her journal. But she didn’t love herself. And she had begun to feel that God was cruel. She only went to church so her mother wouldn’t be alone.
While the church abandoned the family and turned on Nana, Gifty tried to live out the Christian values she’d been taught, especially loving her neighbors. But her faith is slipping away, thanks to the hypocrisy she sees around her, and her sense that God has failed to protect her brother. But, because church is still her main point of connection with her mother, she can’t yet give it up.