Choosing a pack of gum in the corner store usually takes me several minutes. There are just too many options. I hold too much fear of buyer’s remorse. Making significant life decisions, then, is agonizingly slow for me. So when I found myself ready to walk down the aisle to join Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on the first Sunday I visited there, I knew something significant was going on within me.
The music, the preaching, the hospitality, even the way the light filtered through the stained-glass, all of it drew me, body and soul, into this new home. The Spirit spoke deep down in my gut that I needed to listen in this place. I needed to harmonize with these brothers and sisters, as weekly we would “lift every voice and sing.”
The following week, a dozen Januarys ago, my wife and I did make the walk down the aisle at the end of the service, where we were celebrated and treated with as great a warmth as we have ever experienced. And immediately, we were put to work. A middle-aged man approached us, armed with the dangerous combination of the smoothest voice I have ever heard, and an uncommon gift for welcome. I would have done anything he asked.
What he wanted was simple and disarming: would we come to rehearsal on Saturday with the drama team, as they prepared a dramatic presentation for the next week’s Black History Month celebration during worship? You’ll have a simple part, with no lines, he said. It will be easy.
We showed up Saturday morning, ready to get our instructions and play our part. The silky-voiced director began placing people and giving instructions. “You’ll be here, as the driver of the bus,” he said to a tall and thick man, with gray salting his dark beard. “And you’ll be here waiting on its arrival,” he said to a small group to the side, women and men holding the props of daily life — a shopping bag, a baby, a tool box, a lunch pail. “And you all,” he said to me and Helms, “will, of course, be the white people who want Ms. Parks to give up her seat.”
Of course. As the only white folks in the room, we should have expected to play that part. This should not have been surprising to me. But it was. In history class, in church, in coffee shop discussions, it was always other white people. It was never us — our cousins, our ancestors, our heroes, but especially not ourselves — who sustained the system, or enforced it, or benefitted from it, or created it, or taught it in classrooms, or defended it in courtrooms, or stayed silent in the middle of it. It was always someone else, someone removed far enough from us to keep us comfortable. We were the good white people.
With that affirmation, we comforted ourselves, regardless of the cost of that comfort to our neighbors still seeking equal justice under law, still seeking confirmation from their society that their lives matter. There’s even a white folks’ parlor game, popular among students, where you discuss what you would have done during the Civil Rights Movement. Spoiler: we all know that we would have marched, at great and heroic sacrificial costs to ourselves and our families. Each and every one of us would have done that, we can assure you, which brings us great comfort.
The church drama ripped that comfort away from me, and rightly so. I had to put my body and mind in the place where I would have been, which is where pretty much all of us white folks would have been, and were — at the front of the bus.
February is here again — Black History Month. White navel-gazing is not the proper orientation toward Black History Month. We’ve got to do the needed self-examination, but we are not the center of the narrative. There are too many profound and beautiful stories to learn: the lives of Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X; the writing of Octavia Butler and James Baldwin; the music of Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone; the politics of Ella Baker and Marcus Garvey; the art of Augusta Savage and Romare Bearden; and more and more, more beauty than one month, or one year, or one lifetime can hold. During February — but not only during February — we rightly take time to focus on the lives and work of black people, whose very living was often an act of artful resistance. Using their work to put ourselves back at the center of the story is not the right strategy. But while reading all that black history, it does help to know what seat we are sitting in.
For those of us weaned on the religion of slaveholders, and the politics of the domination system, and the art of sentimentality, the brilliance of black people can set us free as well. Black history in America is American history, and if another Reconstruction is possible in America, that history will set the path forward. Black History Month celebrates black folks, but it is not only for them. It is for all of us who long to walk down freedom’s highway.