“If you don’t know Black history, then you don’t know American history. If you don’t know American history, then you don’t know America. If you don’t know America, then you don’t know yourself.” Ibram X. Kendi
I am not sure how many of you have vivid childhood memories, especially early school experiences, but for me my memory is filled with random little snippets such as performing a folk dance in front of the entire school with my fellow third graders or wearing my New Kids on the Block button every day on my jean jacket. I can also recall almost every hands-on group project like the time we made and decorated a cake as a plant cell or when we constructed a small model of Miss Havisham’s mansion, complete with cobwebs and lace that would have made Dickens himself chuckle.
My favorite subject in school was Language Arts, but I also enjoyed history though I only retained basic concepts of famous people or events. I am not going to blame any of my previous teachers because they were really amazing, but as I have gotten older and read more for myself, I have often wondered what I actually learned about history as a child, specifically U.S. history.
“Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.”Frank Harte
I have shared before that I homeschooled our children last year, and although we focused on minority authors and stories about people of color all year, when Black History Month rolled around, we checked out as many books and biographies about Black people as we could manage from the library. We read aloud the words of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, learned of the activism and music of Fannie Lou Hamer, watched a documentary on Ruby Bridges in her bravery to desegregate her school, and of course read about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B.Wells, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. Again, I realized how much of Black history that I did not know.
How many of us have relied on movies or simplified history texts written to minimize the horrors and inhumanities shown to African Americans to shape how we view our “great” country? When history is written through the eyes and words of those in power, we often are ignorant to the actual truths of our past, forming a collective consciousness or set of shared beliefs, in this example, regarding slavery.
After reading a lovely picture book about the famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, I decided to read one of his autobiographies – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – to hear the truths of slavery in his own words. I read each chapter slowly, tearfully, and full of lament. I actually could only read a chapter at a time to really ponder and digest what I had just read.
Where was this truth when I was in school? Have I just forgotten these details, or have we as a country been too afraid to teach our young people our actual history, that our country was literally built by and prospered from the forced labor and mistreatment of enslaved Africans. The enslaved were often separated from their families and sent to live and toil for different slave masters, many to never see their families again. The violence and terrors of chattel slavery lasted for hundreds of years before Frederick Douglass was born.
Douglass describes the horrors of slavery and his experience in being introduced to reading and later teaching himself how to read and write. These skills eventually enabled him to escape slavery and become an abolitionist. Although his stories share the evils of slavery, his words also speak to the beauty, resilience, community, music, and faith of the enslaved.
One of the most difficult things to read and realize is that Christianity was front and center in the life of slavery as both parishioners and ministers alike owned slaves; “Christians” owned other humans. Let that sink in for a minute.
Douglass recalled when his one master attended a Methodist camp-meeting and “experienced religion”:
“I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”
Douglass ended his narrative by explaining that although he wrote very critically of Christianity, he was not referencing the Christianity of Christ that is good, pure, and holy. His critique was of the slaveholding Christianity of the land, the bad, corrupt, and wicked. He calls this Christianity the boldest of all frauds. “We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.” Douglass then shared the words of a northern Methodist preacher, who resided in the south for some time and experienced the atrocities of slaveholding “morals, manners, and piety”:
“Come, saints and sinners, here me tell
How pious priests whip Jack and Nell,
And women buy and children sell,
And preach all sinners down to hell,
And sing of heavenly union.
Love not the world,’ the preacher said,
And winked his eye, and shook his head;
He seized on Tom, and Dick, and Ned,
Cut short their meat, and clothes, and bread,
Yet still loved heavenly union.”
When the Christianity of the land professes “to love God whom they have never seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen,” (Douglass) can we really call that Christianity?
I will continue this conversation next week and share more from Jemar Tisby’s book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, and a recent article he wrote, “This Black History Month, don’t pretend racism has disappeared from the church.”
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