On Black History: From Platitudes to Participation
My wife and I recently watched the movie, Hidden Figures. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and agreed that between this and Fences, black films are in a great place.
As we left the movie theater, my wife said something I’ve heard before in response to this movie: “Why is this the first time I’m hearing about what these women did?” It’s a common sentiment often conveyed after discovering the significant contributions of black people in America—contributions that appear to have been hidden.
It has often been remarked that American history has undergone a vigorous “whitewashing,” whereby contributions of minorities (namely black people) have largely been overlooked or flat out disregarded. If they are regarded, they are painted through a lens of heroism and idealism as if to suppress the devastating realities of oppression and suffering they endured. No matter the portrayals, the contributions of black people in this country still shine brightly, bursting forth from centuries of devastation and despair.
For this reason and others, we as a country are asked to take a concentrated amount of time to reflect on these contributions. This allocated time is often met with mixed responses, complete with both excitement and cynicism. Many of my friends and family can be found celebrating the achievements of little known black inventors, activists, and artists—using platforms anywhere from social media to academia to share untold stories with an audience who otherwise may not have been paying attention.
Some of my friends ask the fateful question: “why do we need a special month to celebrate black history?” This question is a common sentiment among those who don’t see why it is important to impose a “niche” perspective of history upon all Americans—seeing this as a form of undeserved special treatment, assigning unfair attention to a community of people who never seem to be satisfied.
Black History Month is an interesting social experiment. It emboldens the black voice, which often evokes response. I’ve made a personal observation: the sentiment often displayed from many (not all) white people is the notion that they don’t need to learn anything or engage with this month. It is more of a “good for them” or “have fun with that” type of attitude, whether conveyed with animus or indifference. The average white person doesn’t typically engage with Black History Month at all. Still, many believe we are a post-racial nation.
Perhaps you’re reading this and you strongly disagree. You are white and you are fired up about Black History Month, geared up and ready to learn. To you, I say Godspeed and proceed. To others, let’s continue.
Over the past 4-5 years, I have been part of maybe 100+ conversations about pursuing ethnic diversity in churches and Christian communities at large. This conversation is an evolving one for me, but there are consistent factors. I began with addressing the general scope of engagement with black history in order to compare and contrast with the social dynamics of this activity amongst professing Christians. The engagement is often very similar in a less than flattering type of way.
A Call to Action.
The advent of focusing on the black Christian’s navigation through evangelical environments is a fascinating social experiment. All of the same components of Black History Month are there, the visible black voices, the emphasis on hidden black characters in Church history, and the open expression/appreciation of black people in the arts. However, also present is the same “good for them” or “have fun with that” attitude from the vast majority of people steeped in their deeply whitewashed view of mainstream evangelicalism. While the voices for diversity and progressive efforts are loud and consistent, there is still a largely silent mass of evangelicals who are not interested in engaging with this narrative.
What I’d like to do is turn the corner from laying groundwork and articulating observations, and cut straight to some tangible imperatives. I want to call white Christians to action. Many are still struggling with the racial/ethnic discussion as a means of gospel emphasis. Many are still adamantly opposed to the existence of white privilege. Many are disillusioned to the reasons behind racial divisions among believers sparked by the 2016 election.
To you and your friends, I would like to ask you to do something. I’d like to ask you to engage in specific ways. I’d like to ask you to pray through some of these action items and ask the Lord to help you grow deeper in your relationships with your black brothers and sisters.
Read Black Authorship.
This is an invitation to explore the various political, social, and theological views of black people over the entire history of black people in America. I invite you to read something you know you may disagree with. I invite you to read something that explores a viewpoint that neither you or your family would typically approve of. I invite you to wrestle with words that speak of experience and opinion that may offend you and/or make you angry. Challenge your base of perspective and influence.
Listen to/watch Black Art.
You may hate hip hop, but I want to challenge you to listen to it—not to critique the graphic nature of the content, but to listen for the story behind it. It takes effort to go a layer deeper and understand what story is being told and why it is conveyed in such a way. Listen to artist interviews, when they are asked why they make the music they do. Watch black films/TV shows (I prefer the ones from the late 80s/early 90s). Absorb the subject matter and listen for the narratives beyond the laugh tracks. Watch The Wire. Watch black comedians. Listen to gospel music. Visit with black artwork and poetry.
Put Yourself in Majority Black Contexts.
The easiest avenue for this as a Christian is to visit black churches. Listen to the style and delivery of the preacher, not to simply critique exegesis, but to understand his audience. Introduce yourself to members and become familiar. Go to black barber shops and hair salons, with the intention of listening to the social conversation. There may be lectures at local colleges and high schools from black community leaders, or events around nearby cities addressing social issues or hosting programs for majority black neighborhoods. Flyers are typically everywhere. Or you can join the Pass the Mic discussion group on Facebook (haha).
These are a few imperatives I suggest to move from platitudes to participation. I have often heard the platitudes paid to black people in evangelical circles, with surface-level attempts at sympathizing with the black plight. Here’s opportunity for action. I don’t suggest these to devalue or demonize white people, but there has been an awful amount of talk with little to no calls to action.
Sometimes it feels we black people are being tolerated rather than appreciated for all that we are. It often feels like our voices are still not credible enough to break through the conventionality of majority white perspective and authority. It feels like we are being given “niche” consideration. It feels like posturing rather than partnership.
I suggest the things above because the black experience in this country is automatically accompanied by an expectation that we understand history from the majority’s perspective. All of my suggestions are things black people are already required to do in our society. If you are white, as you read them, please consider that black people are doing these things as we speak in order to succeed in their schools, careers, and churches.
If we are to truly be a beacon of unification under the banner of the gospel, we should give of ourselves to searching out our relational depth. We should take efforts to hear one another out, even if it offends us and makes us uncomfortable. I pray we see transformation from faith to faith, and glory to glory.
Please see below for recommendations:
- The Souls of Black Folk – WEB Dubois
- The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave – Frederick Douglass
- Autobiography of Malcolm X – Alex Haley and Malcolm X
- Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehesi Coates
- Black and Tired – Anthony Bradley
- Why We Can’t Wait – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors – Thabiti Anyabwile
- The Heart of Black Preaching – Cleophus James Larue
- Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of The Black Panther Party – Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
- Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral – Phyllis Wheatley
- The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes – by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad
- Malcolm X the Movie – directed by Spike Lee
- Boyz in the Hood – directed by John Singletary
- The Butler
- The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 (documentary)
- Crips and Bloods: Made in America (documentary)
- What’s Going On (album) – Marvin Gaye
Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud – James Brown
- I Put a Spell On You – Nina Simone
- Straight Outta Compton – NWA
- Illmatic – Nas
- Black Star – Mos Def and Talib Kweli
- Like Water for Chocolate – Common
- The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill
- Good Kid Maad City – Kendrick Lamar
- Reasonable Doubt – Jay-Z
- American Gangster – Jay-Z
- Talented Tenth – Sho Baraka
- The Narrative – Sho Baraka