Like many across this country I’ll joining the voices and libations celebrating Black Heritage Month acknowledging those ancestors and my contemporaries who have and are contributing to our heritage. That heritage doesn’t begin post Civil War or the Civil Rights era. It begins before many Africans from various tribes across the continent of Africa were chained and sailed across the waters to Europe, the Caribbean, and the US. It is the celebration of those black men and women who were strong enough to stand chattle slavery, family separations, and rebellions that ended in the deaths of many for the cause of freedom and liberty.
I take this moment for the celebration of my personal history. My paternal and maternal families have a wonderfully diverse history rooted in the oppression that they endured that empowered them to build families in the midst of it. My maternal and paternal family history is a combination of former slaves and sharecroppers and biracial freedmen. I am a reflection of their beautifully unique relationships. They created the legacy upon which I am standing and building on. My ancestors were not the best educated but they were masters of the world around them which empowered them to build entire communities that continue to this day.
Black Heritage needs to be more than a few popular talking heads that the majority approves of. It needs to reflect the authentic reality of our history and people who made it. This includes those unsung heros who will never have schools, streets, buildings, or anything else named for them. It is these who bore the burdens of oppression that gave hope and power to the eventual liberation and freedoms we now have and don’t fully appreciate. I choose to speak and honor that history that is the present and future.
I find it interesting that 50 years after most of the pinnacle moments of the civil rights movement in American history are on the brink of destruction because of events such as the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. Black men have been killed either by accident or by force by white police officers for a very long time. Cities are poised for riots and black people are crying racism all across the land.
This made me wonder if Americans are suffering from some kind of racial nostalgia. Nostalgia is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “the pleasure or sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” It is as if we want to go back in history and experience the marches protests and tensions of the civil rights movement. Young black people want to see justice but they have no idea what justice really looks like. Older black adult want to have a sense of justification for what they condemn as white racism against young black men. It is as if those who were not in the movement are getting a second chance at the movement.
Of course, this is not beneficial to the country at all. It only creates a greater sense of angst and disgust among black and white races. It is as if we want the tension to continue instead of creating an environment where it does not exist. The longer we continue to bring up the issue of race the longer we will live in an age where race matters more than being compassionate humans.
The reality is that there is more racial tension now than it was 50 years ago. We are creating an atmosphere where race is as dangerous as any nuclear device could ever be toward the destruction of this country. There is no solution as how to bring about an end to this nostalgia, but we must be vigilant to stop creating the environment for that destruction. We must target the media outlets that continue to maintain the undercurrent of racial tension. We must demand greater accountability from leader to not incur more racial tension. We must demand that both races realize that we have achieved more together than we have ever done apart.
We must remember the past and acknowledge the very bad things that happened. We must move forward and not live in the nostalgia that keeps us in bondage. The Ferguson fiasco only brings to light a false reality that media and others are creating with the hope of maintaining a strong delusion of progress through protests. We err on the side of nostalgia when we continue to attempt to recreate actions and passions of our ancestors and mother’s when we should be putting our hands to the plow and not looking back.
I grew up hearing the rhetoric of the coming race war and from what I am seeing now, I believe we are not far from one. I love my country and I love my race, but the nostalgia must go. There is absolutely nothing that can be done to change the past. If we learned anything from the Reconstruction Period in American history, it is this: Blacks and whites in the country learned that to be a great country, we had to be a great people. We had to be Americans first. This state of nostalgic tension could possibly leave this country in a very desolate place that it may not recover from.
When most people think of the black church, a vision of hooping preacher’s tuning up to bluesy organ playing, gospel choirs robed and swaying to upbeat music, members shouting and dancing as they are moved by the spirit to do so, and everyone dressed in their Sunday’s best with the ladies wearing the biggest hats one can imagine. That is the idealized version of the black church, but it isn’t the reality. The reality is that the black church is about as diverse as any other ethnic group’s religious expression. There are the Methodists (of which I am affiliated), the Baptists (of which are my religious origins), the Pentecostals (the liveliest of the group), and more recently the non-affiliated fellowships, assemblies, and what not that is becoming the more reticent trend. The black church has certainly come a long way since the Christian religion was introduced to African tribes and new slaves arriving in the west.
Historically when we think of the black church we must think of the movements that brought about a sense of connection for black slaves and freemen in the western world. Leaders such as Richard Allen with the Free African Society, William Seymour and the Azusa movement (later adopted by Bishop Carlton Pearson), C.H. Mason and the Church of God in Christ movement (this led to splinter groups such as the Church of Christ Holiness, USA, the Assemblies of God, and several other COGIC organizations that took the name but not the leadership), and the National Baptist Conventions (USA, America, Progressive, and more recently the National Missionary Baptist and Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship).
The black church has had it’s moments of a collective identity particularly one of social and economic oppression. The local black church has until recently been the epicenter of activity in the black community. There are some churches that have managed to stay and grow within their communities even as demographics have changed and there are others that have taken up shop in the suburbs and managed to experience exceptional growth numerically yet have diminishing influence on their members regarding social and political issues. During the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow up to the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century, the black church was the driving force for education, economic thrift and development, and social justice. This isn’t the case anymore.
The black church as a collective is becoming largely discombobulated and outdated. This is evident as more black pastors begin to function independently of a denominational governing body and become celebrities in their own right. Take for instance, Bishop T.D. Jakes, author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, movie and music producer and now talk show host. 20 years ago, he was a rising star from West Virginia and is now considered by many to be the 21st Century Billy Graham. There is also Dr. Michael Beckwith, motivational speaker and contemporary mystic who was featured on “The Secret” a best selling documentary about wealth and prosperity creation. There are many more that have reached the pinnacle of both religious and secular success and wealth. These represent the great change the black church has undergone in the last two centuries.
For me, the biggest thing about the contemporary black church is how stifled it is. While there is a great thrust of religious diversity in the American society, the black church has seemingly only been in mark time. What is interesting is that the more mainline streams of black religious experience are attempting to find relevance in latter day movements such as the charismatic and apostolic movements. This is more prominent on the African continent and in Latin America than anywhere else. As this is occurring, more blacks are beginning to find identities outside of the black church. More are identifying as non-believers (atheists/agnostics), Buddhist, hindu, and even turning to western African religious traditions (voodoo, ancestral worship, etc). There are also new sects such as the Black Israelites rising up in pockets of the south and the north.
It’s still a good thing to know that there is a black church. Its a powerful communication of how we as a people collectively managed to adapt to new oppressions in a new world. We took the religion of the masters and made it our own. We used a tool that was created to keep us in bondage as a way of empowering us to rise out of that same bondage. We developed a culture within a culture that is emulated by other ethnic groups around the world. We found a way to make the church of Christ an instrument of prosperity for the preacher and the community. The challenge now for the black church is to find a way to reconnect to those things that got us this far. It is time to go back to the “old landmark”. It is time to celebrate our diversity without crippling our power. I believe this can be done and know it should be done. The question now is “will it be done?”