Reflections on Black History Part 2: Why Our Country Needs Black History

Civil rights leader James Baldwin

Civil rights leader James Baldwin

This is the second part of a four-part series reflecting on our need for black history. In this post, I reflect on why we as a nation need black history. You can find the first installment here, where I address my own 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. 

History, Empathy, and Love

 

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, civil rights leader James Baldwin wrote a letter to his nephew. Baldwin wrote the letter in order to help guide his nephew through how to deal with the white community during the Civil Rights Era. In his beautifully and powerfully written letter, Baldwin is surprisingly empathetic toward white people who oppress him. He empathizes with them because he believes that they are held in bondage by a certain view of history. He writes:

 

You [his nephew] must accept them [white people]. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.”

 

If we can better understand what Baldwin means here, then we might also be moved to empathy and love for one another. At the same time, we may find ourselves trapped in history that has led us to further oppression, hate, or apathy. And we may find a release.

So what does Baldwin mean by being trapped in a history we don’t understand? It is not merely that we forget or don't know parts of our history. In part I think Baldwin means that we do not properly remember what we already know.

How We Remember: Something to Celebrate?

 

One perspective on our national memory, and therefore our national identity, is how we celebrate our nation’s history through national holidays. Take the Fourth of July as an example. In this holiday we celebrate freedom from the tyranny of those who we believed to be destructive toward the ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In particular, we celebrate our freedom won from the King of Great Britain, who according to the Declaration of Independence had established an absolute tyranny over the colonies through a history of repeated abuses of power, unwarranted jurisdictions, and his inability to hear the voice of justice. Because of these abuses, we declared the king a tyrant unfit to be the ruler of a free people. We won our freedom and so we celebrate as a nation. This indeed seems worthy of remembering through celebration.

Yet, the day we memorialize as the day of our freedom is not a celebration of freedom for everyone. It is the celebration of freedom for white men. While white men celebrated freedom from the tyranny of Great Britain, they also perpetrated far greater abuses of power and tyranny over black flesh through the institution of slavery. Deaf to the voice of justice, they themselves were far more destructive toward the ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than the King of Great Britain. There is a dark and sad irony here that seems to be woven throughout the fabric of our national memory.

After New Year’s Day, we celebrate nine national holidays every year, including the Fourth of July.

  • On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the only holiday that could be said to honor the rich black heritage of our country, we celebrate our victory over the racial injustice of our nation’s history. At the same time we fail to properly mourn the centuries of racial injustices that needed to be overcome; nor do we properly recognize that racial injustices continue today.
  • On President’s Day we honor our first president who owned slaves.
  • On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we remember and honor those who shed their blood on battlefields both foreign and domestic. At the same time, we fail to properly remember and honor those who shed their blood in the cotton fields of our land after they were taken from their own.
  • On Labor Day we honor the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and health of our country. At the same time, we fail to properly honor those who suffered under the slave labor that built the foundation of our country’s economic wealth.
  • On Columbus Day we honor a man who “discovered” “our land.” At the same time, we fail to honor the people to whom this land belonged before us; nor do we properly mourn the fact that we sought to systematically remove them from the land that was rightfully theirs.

We end the year with thanksgiving for the blessing of harvest and the celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God. This may be the high point of a dark and sad irony for the Christian. If we were to rewrite biblical history in the same way that we remember our national history, we would give thanks to the Roman soldiers and honor the Jewish authorities who sought and carried out the crucifixion of Jesus. We would celebrate them as the founders of our faith. At the same time, we would hardly remember a nameless first century Jewish rebel who suffered at their hands because he once caused a stir among a small community within the Roman Empire.

The way we remember our past ought to trouble us.

When we celebrate certain victories, we fail to recognize, mourn, and even memorialize our vast shortcomings, failures, injustices, and sins. As a result, we have little to no space for honoring the rich black heritage of our past. Yet, we owe much of what we enjoy to the injustices and sufferings of a particular community of people—the black community. When we fail to honor the people of this history and do not properly mourn the injustices of our history, we exaggerate our role as the good guys, attribute our freedoms and privileges to our own hard work, minimize the immense suffering that brought about the goods we enjoy, and continue to perpetrate the injustices we claim are behind us. In so doing we devalue the humanity of others, becoming something nearly subhuman ourselves.

 

I think this is one way of articulating how we are trapped in a history we don’t understand. A history we know, from a story we created. How can we better understand this history and thereby be released from the trap we have set for ourselves? We need to remember properly what we already know.

 

Looking Backward as We Move Forward

 

We do not need to simply “move forward” and forget the past. We need to move forward by remembering the past rightly. Remembering in such a way that the people and events of the past are properly praised and properly mourned is at the heart of a healthy memory, and therefore a heathy identity. If we can recover this sense of remembering, then we can move from ignorance to truth, recognize and honor the personhood of others, and in so doing perhaps rediscover our own humanity. Then maybe we could move toward true reconciliation.

 

The main obstacle we have to overcome is working through the shame of our past. Shame prevents us from diving deep into the wrongs we have done. More than any other story that can be told, the biblical story allows us to do this in a redemptive way. Thus, more than any other community in the world, the church ought to be equipped to redeem and reconcile. The tragedy of the church’s history in our country is the simple fact that we are not.

We turn to that issue in Part 3.

 

Mark Catlinblack history