Black History Month was not a part of my educational journey in high school or college; Gerald Ford recognized it in 1976, along with the country’s bicentennial. Overdue then, it continues to educate an American populace woefully ignorant of the remarkable contributions of persons of African heritage. Rather than regarding black historical figures only through the lens of slavery or colonial subjects – a narrative controlled by white hegemony – Black History Month seeks to shift focus to larger cultural issues with a more inclusive interpretive framework. Confining the awareness to only one month is, of course, problematic.
I was in graduate school before I knew of Harriet Tubman, Carter Woodson, James Baldwin, Howard Thurman and Fannie Lou Hamer. I knew vaguely of Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth, and I was insufficiently curious about the work of Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. Regrettably, my insular culture knew more about black entertainers and athletes than poets, educators, mathematicians (witness “Hidden Figures”), theologians and statespersons.
Ongoing indignities such as using blackface for entertainment (in the not too distant past) call to mind my own segregated and racist upbringing. Racial prejudice was a part of my home, my school, my church and my community. Very few black and white kids attended the same schools, as neighborhood divides made sure it did not occur. We regarded the racial line as fixed, inviolable, as it was supposed to be – even God-ordained, as W. A. Criswell preached while pastor of my home church in Oklahoma.
“We regarded the racial line as fixed, inviolable . . . even God-ordained.”
The names of the two high schools in my hometown put in stark relief the majority community’s expectations. The white kids went to Muskogee Central High School, and most prepared for college; the black kids went to Manual Training, so named because some sort of service or trade was considered to be the highest aspiration for that student population. Astonishingly, the two schools never did anything together except when the school bands would appear sequentially in some civic parade. We missed out on so much by living in parallel, though not equal, universes. Friendship was really not possible given the strictures.
Not surprising, there were also two First Baptist Churches. We never did anything together, either. It was as if the other did not exist, although they grew up alongside one another. The black church building dates from 1903; the date on the cornerstone of the white church is 1904.
As an adolescent I challenged gender discrimination rather than racism and, to my shame, my recovery has been slow. Members of my (white) generation continue to recognize the pernicious stain of racism in our politics, economics and community relations. It seems that we cannot ever fully repent as we learn how systemic racism is; indeed, how it has shaped the Christian imagination, as Willie James Jennings has powerfully written.
Recently, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has examined its racist identity, a step which I applaud. A further step would be to examine the theological understanding that permitted slave holder religion to perdure for over a century. Of this theological travesty, Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove writes in Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion:
Slaveholder religion makes a relationship with God separate from one’s obligation to work for God’s justice. It made it possible for Southern Baptists in the early 20th century to not only justify but feel righteous in their defense of white supremacy, because they imagined they were saving poor black souls.
And we know the catastrophic outcome of this theological tradition. Black lives, ironically and providentially, took a text that was used to oppress them and found in it a liberating story. Exodus did not simply describe the movement of Israel from Egypt to the land of promise, it became their own story. Sophisticated hermeneutics allowed an appropriation of this ancient text as a means of dignity and purpose even while under the heel and whip of slaveholders. The Gospel is mighty strong to withstand the distortion wreaked by white folks!
“As an adolescent I challenged gender discrimination rather than racism and, to my shame, my recovery has been slow.”
Perceptive black readers of Scripture saw through the “Hamitic Curse” ruse employed by white preachers. They refused to believe that God had cursed them, and they claimed their dignity as they read the Bible in a more redemptive way.
As the Southern Seminary study noted, “Since abolitionists generally appealed to the Bible as one of the chief weapons against slavery, white southerners generally relied on the evangelical clergy’s interpretations of scripture in defense of slaveholding.” Skin color determined divine favor in this reading, and the deeper the hue the further down the hierarchy of chosenness the black person went.
Nonetheless, black lives have consistently demonstrated deep faith. Clinging to the promises of God, they have sung and prayed their way forward. They have known the difference between “the Christianity of Christ” and the “Christianity of the land,” in the words of Frederick Douglas. And they continue to claim their rightful place in every echelon of church and society.
Black lives matter to me simply because they are beloved children of God. They matter because of their hard-won wisdom, their creative proclamation, their spirited liturgy and their witness to enduring faith. Of course, black lives matter utterly to God, who continues to call oppressors to repentance so that we might recognize our mutual participation in the Body of Christ.