Celebrating My Unsung Rich Black Heritage Legacy and Future

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.

The Blood Cries Out

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. Genesis 4:9-10

On October 19, 2016, my 18-year-old nephew was shot and killed in another senseless act of gun violence. My nephew was a charming, intelligent, and talented young man who had a lot going for him. Like many teens his age in urban areas, he felt the need to belong. He got with his click, they did typical things people in the hood do. What no one expected was that the hood would be the one to take him out. In only moments, his life was taken and he became another statistic. He became another young brother taken away from us violently. He became another young brother taken by one of his own.

I preached my nephew’s funeral and I wrestled with what to say and how to say it. I knew there would be plenty of young people there. I knew they needed to hear a message of hope and comfort. I knew they needed to hear stories about my nephew’s outgoing personality, big smile, and musical talent. I knew they needed to hear all the good things about my nephew. I also knew something else they needed to hear: I knew they needed to hear the truth.

I wrestled with preaching what they needed to hear. I knew the message would not be one of heaven and angels, and the glorious life of the hereafter. It would be the truth of our silence and passivity leading to so many of our sons and daughters dying needless deaths. It would be the truth of our negligence, passiveness, and silence leading to so many of our sons and daughters are losing their lives to a penal system that treats them as subhuman caged animals.

The truth hurts but it heals. I understand the angst so many young blacks feel. I understand this sense of inalienable rights to claim turf and clicks and amass a rep within the hood. No person wants to seem unappreciated, unnecessary, and unsung. The church and other community and spiritual leaders must address angst. It is the fear of being lost forever that we must combat. It is the distrust of a system that is supposed to protect and serve them that we must address. It is the soul that needs to be actualized and mobilized to see better and greater things not just in the future but in the present.

WE ARE OUR BROTHER’S KEEPER!

We are accountable for the life and death of those we care. We can contribute to their empowerment and liberation from a deep anxiety of over-hood exposure. The story says that Cain spoke with Abel before killing him. It does not say what they discussed or what emotions Cain felt, but whatever it was led to him committing a crime that has affected humanity every since. When God confronts Cain, his response is chilling. It reeks of insensitivity to the divine community. It speaks loudly of how easy it is to brush off another black man’s life and meaningless. In spite of this, Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to God. It spoke of his tragedy as no language could. It lamented his relationship and his death, but it also gave hope. It gave hope because it cried to the Creator. It cried to the Eternal. It spoke with enough authority to cause God to hear and act.

We should learn from Abel’s blood. We should learn to cry out to God against all violence. We should learn that death does not silence the voice of the slain. We should demand accountability in our communities from one another. We should allow the blood voices of the slain to resonate within our communities until we stand and cry No More! Their blood is crying out to us and to God. Are we listening or are like Cain, continuing the passivity of life only asking, “Are we our brother’s keeper?”

Jonah and the realization of reluctant ministry

The book of Jonah is an interesting one. We find the story of a reluctant prophet who would rather see an entire nation of people destroyed than receive the mercy of the Lord. We see an individual with a divine mandate intentionally attempt to not carry out that mandate. The prophet Jonah boards a ship heading in another direction gets entangled in a storm that forces him to admit his flawed attempt to evade ministry, and eventually gets him the in belly of a large fish that forces him to rethink his relationship and purpose with God. Jonah is indeed one good read. I have found myself in Jonah’s shoes on a number of occasions. I had rather see some persons retained in their messy affairs of life than deal with the mandate of God to minister to them.

What is disturbing about Jonah isn’t that he was swallowed by a large fish or that he reluctantly repents and carries out his mission. What is disturbing to me is the way the book ends. It ends so abruptly. Jonah speaks as if he were the biggest disappointment to his call as a prophet of Jehovah. He had been sitting outside of the city of Nineveh angry at God and himself for feeling as if he had been manipulated by God into carrying out God’s mission. He had understood God’s mercy and benevolence towards mankind. He had experienced firsthand when he was on the boat headed to Tarshish and after he had been thrown into the sea and swallowed by a large fish. In spite of all of this, even though he was repentant and grateful, he was still reluctant.

For many, reluctance is a big burden of ministry. Those who have been in ministry long enough have encountered individuals they were reluctant to minister to. While there are plenty who rejoice in being called to prison ministry, pastoral care ministry, and especially the pastoral ministry, there are more who are very reluctant to serve “the least of these.” Service requires both the desire to go and the need to follow. What Jonah experienced was nothing short of simply being human. Reluctance is more present in ministry than many pastors and church members would care to admit. It can be challenging when confronting our own biases and prejudices about those we are commanded to serve and minister to.

What makes Jonah’s narrative interesting is the way he confronts God about regarding His immediate compassion upon seeing the Ninevites turn from their evil way. I would argue that there are plenty of clergy just like Jonah. We would rather see God’s judgment and condemnation on people we have deemed undeserving of His grace. Perhaps this is more succinctly seen in contemporary political and religious freedom movements. There are those standing by their right to religious freedom condemning others choosing to express the same. It is destructive and does not demonstrate the character of God to non-believers.

Another interesting thing about this narrative is that while Nineveh likely had early connections to the ancient Jews, that connection had long been lost by the time of Jonah’s mission there.  The question then becomes why did Jehovah even desire for them to hear from Him and repent? It was clear that the great city of Nineveh was enjoying prosperity without God and He apparently tolerated it for generations. This could have contributed to Jonah’s reluctance. Think about the number of times pastors have preached in communities infested with crime of all kinds and not one person responds to the invitation to abundant life (not even after funerals lol). Yet immediately after hearing the cry from the reluctant prophet about an imminent overthrow of their great city in 40 days, they all believed God from the youngest to the oldest.  Even the king made it a public law that everyone cries out mightily to God so that His anger would be turned away from them. If only people would heed that message now and produce similar reaction, what a marvelous change this country and world would see!

In spite of Jonah’s reluctance, the people still received. It begs the question of how much our reluctance matters when it comes to God’s mission. We may feel like pawns in God’s game of repentance, but ultimately what He desires for individuals gets accomplished. We may go into and come away from a divine ministry assignment throwing a big tantrum, but the reality is we are still being used to the glory of God the Father. Reluctance in ministry does not take away the need for ministry. There will be moments in service to the Father that we will utterly despise, but when the seed has been planted, watered, and grows, it will be one that will bring forth fruit for generations to come.

Nostalgic Tensions

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.

Ray Rice and the Prestige of Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence is a very serious offense. We hear stories of tragedy and triumph and the will to survive from both men and women who have been victims of domestic violence. The recent news of a professional athlete abusing his spouse is nothing new. What makes this different is the fact that the leadership in professional sports are finally starting to speak up against their players. The release of a horrific video depicting a black professional athlete knocking his fiancé out cold only adds to the concern of black athletes and the prestige of domestic violence.

Twenty years ago, America witnessed O. J. Simpson, one of its athletic heroes become the primary person of interest in a double homicide. Simpson went from being a beloved athlete and actor to the spark that ignited debates about black athlete’s prestige. This prestige was not only one of wealth accumulated but of a disconnect from the common vestiges of the regular black man. This prestige is one of alienation from the consequences the average black man endures resulting from decisions made out of anger or frustration. This prestige drew a big line of distinction between those who were the investments of billionaires and those black men who were the discarded and dejected of society. The prestige allowed professional football athletes to all but get away with murder. We saw it with, Adam “Pac Man” Jones, Ray Carruth, and even the legendary Jim Brown. These men succeeded in the game on the field, but failed in the game of life.

We have made professional athletes into role models for our young black children. Parents put their hopes in dreams of a talented player making it to the big leagues. Some parents only lightly address some of the aggressions their boys manifest while playing sports. While it is true that this aggression is good on the football field, the basketball court, the baseball field, or the wrestling mat, it is not good for interaction with others outside of those arenas. Young black men develop this aggression early and when not properly assessed and treated, it carries over into the relationships with females. This often ends in acts of domestic violence that destroys the lives of all involved.

Not even a century ago, it was the intent of professional sports promoters and team owners did all they could to keep black men off their teams. We had leagues of our own where we were able to manage and control our players with dignity. Players carried the pride of all Blacks on their shoulders. They were afraid to do anything that would bring shame to not only them but also the entire black race. They mastered the art of concealment and discretion better than some politicians did. Black team leaders and owners understood the value of the player’s integrity, skill, and talent. There is a great disconnect today. Today’s black players are nothing more than expensive investments beginning as young as Pops Warner and AAU leagues.

As long as this exploitation continues, we will likely see black athletes excel on the playing field while exploiting the privilege they have as celebrities and investments. To counter this, we must be vigilant in helping young black find means to address their aggression. Just as we educate them about the perils of street and thug life, we must do so with them regarding the value of the female life. We must educate them of how the smallest incident of aggression against a female can do enough damage and follow them throughout their lives. While we do not want parents to dissuade their children from pursuing professional sports careers, but in the process, help them understand the pitfalls of achieving that goal. Our black male children are seeing what they have been told are role models fall into the pit of diminished life because of their acts of violence and aggression. We must be vigilant if we want to see the patterns of privileged domestic violence stop so that we can create a new pattern of privileged love and honor from our black men.

The Black Church Then and Now

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?”

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