Of the important things I’ve learned about being a white-identified person in the USA, one stands out this month: a focus on racism and the voices and experiences of color is always optional for me. Being white has been and still is a lot like moving with the current of a river, that is, if I don’t actually make an effort to learn, to seek out, and to act to heal racism and to pay attention at that level, I can just drift along unconsciously being white (and male and straight). People of color (or other less centered groups) don’t have that privilege. It’s always there and conscious.
That’s why Black History Month is so important. It is a discipline, a structure that calls the culture back to hearing American history that’s been neglected and hidden. It calls us back to seeing all Americans and to drawing the circle wide. Alban At Duke Divinity School, an educational resource for churches, offers this helpful reminder:
The annual celebration known as Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in 1926. Historian Carter G. Woodson picked the timing for this commemorative week to coincide with the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two figures who were greatly respected among African Americans in the early 20th century…
Contemporary conversations about race, justice and equity lack substance when we do
not know and appreciate history. Likewise, our appreciation for the Christian tradition requires us to have a complete vision of our past.
The roots of Black history in Christianity extend well past 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. In Acts 8, Philip evangelized an Ethiopian eunuch, who carried the gospel back to Ethiopia. In Mark 15:21, Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene was a city in eastern Libya, in north Africa. Moses’s wife Zipporah, according to Numbers 12, was from Cush, an ancient name for Africa.
These are just a few of the biblical stories that highlight the gift of Black history – and early church historians agree that Augustine and Tertullian were also people of African descent, even though no one knows how they looked.
As we celebrate Black History Month, how might our thinking be informed if our historical narratives – along with the images in our Bibles and in our churches – more accurately reflected the contributions of a multicultural “cloud of witnesses”?
The Rev. JT Smiedendorf has been a UCC minister since 2001, serving churches in Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington. He has a particular passion for reclaiming the earthy, embodied, and experiential aspect of Christian spiritual practice. He and his wife Allison are co-founders of The Sanctuary for Sacred Union, an inter-spiritual initiative, and he is currently earning a postgraduate Certificate in Psychedelic Therapies and Research. Read more about JT here.