In the summer of 2017, I had the privilege of touring Washington, D.C. and Virginia. As I imagine happens to many travelers from the West Coast, I was taken aback by the richness of history found as one approaches the epicenter of our nation’s birth. On one of our excursions, my family and I took a tour of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home (his plantation). It was a challenging experience. To consider that people can do both good and evil is such a foreign exercise in our culture, but the Scriptures invite us to wrestle with figures like David, Solomon, and countless others with complicated legacies. 

Historical figures can’t change their level of influence after their time is up; society often determines whether and how history remembers them. The narratives tend to be shaped to serve whoever is in power, with historical figures labeled according to the binary of hero or villain. White historical figures get the privilege of nuance and contextualization regardless of how they are labeled. Black historical figures are treated much differently. 

To consider that people can do both good and evil is such a foreign exercise in our culture, but the Scriptures invite us to wrestle with figures like David, Solomon, and countless others with complicated legacies. 

Many Black historical figures are labeled villains for the sake of the status quo. When Black people are labeled heroes, they are often tokenized and pruned on the trees of white supremacy so that they might bear strange fruit. There also exists a third category created specifically for Black people. When it is not profitable for the status quo to label us as either heroes or villains, we are forgotten

In the face of being “whited out” of history, Black Christians have the opportunity to stand as a prophetic witness both to ourselves and to our self-proclaimed “Christian” nation. Our collective pain has gifted us with a perspective of truth because we have had little to gain from the status quo and its oppressive power dynamics (the intersection of gender, class, and/or orientation shed even more light). 

Historical figures can’t change their level of influence after their time is up; society often determines whether and how history remembers them.

God has used us and our ancestors to better preserve his love–his gospel– in the face of like white supremacy. Despite the accusations of onlookers, our forgiveness is remarkable and mature, and our theology is deep and wise because it has been refined in the crucible of history. We have also seen corruption. We have made mistakes. We, too, are human.

We have a chance to examine the polarities of historical hero and villain. We have the chance to tell history that has been forgotten and untold. We can learn the truth of our heroic, our villainous, and our forgotten ancestors. We can learn from their victories. We can learn from their faults. We can learn their worth in God. 

Let’s let our ancestors teach us.