Reflections on Black History Part 1: Why I Need Black History
This is the first part of a four-part series reflecting on our need for black history. Here I address my own need. You can find the second installment here, where I address the country’s need. In the third installment here, I reflect on why the white church needs black history. Finally in the fourth installment here, I provide a few resources that may help someone begin to explore black history in a meaningful way.
This post has been in the works for a while now. In January I began writing something for black history month because I have increasingly understood the importance for such remembrance. When I began writing, I had planned to argue that black history is important because racial reconciliation is important. In that version of this post I would have argued reconciliation is not possible without truth, and inasmuch as we want to pursue reconciliation, we must first be committed to the truth. Black history helps us recover important truths that have been hidden, thus enabling us to pursue reconciliation with greater sincerity and depth. Furthermore, I would have argued that this pursuit is especially important for Christians because the gospel calls us to this sort of ministry. While I still believe these things to be true, and perhaps will write about them elsewhere, I delayed in posting because I started to feel like I was missing something. That feeling grew into a sense of falling woefully short of honoring black history as I ought, even somehow distorting its purpose. The feeling wouldn’t subside, so I decided to set aside writing to see if I couldn’t uncover what was nagging me. I uncovered two things that were calling me to wait.
Slow to Speak
At first I realized that I was speaking about the white church in general before speaking about myself. One could say it was the nagging sense that I was speaking out of turn. Playing the part of the fool, I had been quick to speak, slow to listen. Renewed by this fresh realization I began to write about my own experience of racial reconciliation, how I had pursued justice, how that had shaped me, and how it had increased my understanding of the biblical story and the church’s plight, particularly in the United States of America. But something remained, a force pulling back with ever increasing power, not allowing me to take off just yet. So I decided to stop writing and actually listen. I picked up the investigation again, this time bringing in voices that could give language to my experience.
In waiting and listening, I rediscovered Willie James Jennings’ warning concerning the theological language of reconciliation. In his book Christian Imagination: Theology and The Origins of Race, he writes:
I have purposely stayed away from the theological language of reconciliation because of its terrible misuse in Western Christianity and its tormented deployment in so many theological systems and projects. The concept of reconciliation is not irretrievable, but I am convinced that before we theologians can interpret the depths of the divine action of reconciliation we must first articulate the profound deformities of Christian intimacy and identity in modernity. Until we do, all theological discussions of reconciliation will be exactly what they tend to be: (a) ideological tools for facilitating the negotiations of power; or (b) socially exhausted claims masquerading as serious theological accounts. In truth, it is not at all clear that most Christians are ready to imagine reconciliation.
When I first encountered this paragraph, it had seemed to me strange that I should abandon the language of reconciliation when discussing race. Wasn’t this in fact the intended goal of God’s redemptive movement in Christ—to reconcile all things to himself? Why would I abandon such language in the conversation where I probably needed it most? In asking these questions with fresh eyes, troubled heart, and uncertain mind, I had uncovered the second force pulling at me this whole time. The gravity of Jennings’ words had finally pulled at me long enough to create an uneasiness with how I was employing black history in the service of reconciliation.
My Plea for "Not Guilty"
While reflecting on Jennings’ words, I discovered that I was employing the language of racial reconciliation so that I could be declared innocent of the same charges brought against my fellow white evangelical Americans. I finally realized that I had set up a courtroom scene in which I was the prosecuting attorney, defense counsel, and star witness in my own trial. On trial for the injustices perpetrated before and all around me, I would selectively marshal the scant evidence against me, be lenient in cross examination, and provide brilliant testimony to easy questions when I called myself to the stand. Furthermore, I had selected a favorable all-black jury, and black history itself would preside as judge. When all the evidence had been heard, the jury would return quickly to deliver the final verdict. The judge would ask the jury if they had reached their decision, and the forewoman would respond, “In the case of racial injustice v. Mark Catlin, the jury finds the defendant not guilty.” In a decision that had shocked the world, the jury found this white evangelical from Alabama who now lives in Princeton, NJ, innocent of all charges. Singing and dancing would ensue in the streets, and the world would have hope once again. So would begin the celebration of MTC, Jr. Day (those are my initials).
Back to Reality
As I came to realize this, the gravity of Jennings’ words became much more than a subtle pull, nagging at me ever so gently. His words brought me crashing down to reality. The courtroom scene that I had conceived on a cosmic scale had actually been playing out in my own heart and mind the whole time. I couldn’t face my own culpability in the sins of my country and church. Certainly I wasn’t a culprit in the wrongs, the sins, and the injustices that I had uncovered. I had to prove to myself that somehow I wasn’t part of the problem. With the problem existing out there somewhere, I must be part of the solution. I am not them. So under the guise of seeking justice for others, I was seeking to justify myself. And as I was attempting to prove that I wasn’t the problem, I was continuing the narrative that for centuries has plagued the country and church I call home. I was making black history a slave to my own ends.
Thus, in my own work, the theological concept of reconciliation had suffered exactly what Jennings said—terrible misuse and tormented deployment in order to become a tool to facilitate negotiations of power. My concept of reconciliation was little more than a socially exhausted claim masquerading as a serious theological account. I sought reconciliation because I could become the hero of the story. Yet, I also agree with Jennings that reconciliation is not irretrievable. It will require, however, first articulating the profound deformities of Christian intimacy and identity in our country. I believe that black history is one of the keys that will help me do this, and in so doing actually serve and honor others. I cannot simply move from truth to reconciliation. I must move from ignorance to truth, and from truth to personhood and human dignity, confession and repentance, and then perhaps from there to reconciliation.
This is why I need black history. Black history helps me locate where I've been, and where I currently stand, so that I can take the next step from ignorance to truth, a path well traveled for me at this point. In the future I hope to move beyond that step, but I also anticipate returning often.
The Journey Ahead
So I haven’t figured it all out yet, and I probably never will. Others have written, and continue to write, on these matters with much greater profundity than I. What I can speak to, however, is my journey in getting here and what I’ve discovered along the way. Although it feels to me like I’ve come a long way already, I’m sure the toughest terrain lies ahead for a journey that will easily last me the remainder of my life. But it is good to find a resting place, gather up some notes, and bring them all together before we reach our final destination, however impoverished my current understanding may be. That’s what I offer in this series of posts—a few notes from my own journey that I hope may help you in yours. Nothing more, but maybe something less.
 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, 10