Welcome to Black History Month…

Yesterday was the start of Black History Month. The start of our celebration of this month began in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson designated the second week of February as “Negro History Week”. In 1976 it was extended to a month by the US government (see this article for a longer treatment of the history).

I can recall celebrations of Black History Month during my school days, and it was so interesting that this was the only month that Black history was even mentioned. I found that to be odd…and still do. When I landed on the campus of the University of Illinois in the Fall of 1990, I was absorbed into a world of immense Black pride and frustration. If the Black Panther party had still around, I would have joined. I learned so many things about my history as a Black person that I never heard as a child, and it made me angry. Why was this information withheld from me for so long? And why was “my” history not a part of US History in general? Why did I only hear about it one month out of the year, and why only a select few things related to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement? To say I was militant was an understatement…

I have since shed that militancy and anger, by the grace of God. But I have to be honest, the practice of a “Black History Month” still puzzles me. And ours is not the only month out there. We now have Asian American History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Greek-American Heritage Month, Irish-American Heritage Month, Asian Pacific…It is hard to keep track of them all (and if I missed one, my apologies).

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that all these special months can have an unintended consequence of keeping us separate, not bringing us together. It would seem more productive to rethink how we write American history in general to include a richer, more accurate portrait of how America came to be America. This would require deep, painful soul searching on the part of all Americans – and I don’t think we are ready to go through that. Thus, a month to represent each ethnic group that makes up the fabric of American life.

Today I read two blog posts that really resonated with me. The first, by Trillia Newbill, is especially powerful to me. The question: How should Christians approach the celebration of Black History? Her argument is that is should be more than just a month, that moving beyond the designation of a month would provide opportunity to build greater understanding within the church. I would agree, and say that all ethnicities should be included in that argument.

Another was a bit more intriguing to me and leads me to my reasons for blogging today. This article landed in my tweet feed today, and I loved it. The author is explaining why he will no raise his children to be “color blind”. And I have to say I resonated deeply with what he was saying. This quote encapsulates his argument:

“I want my my daughter to see race, to understand race, and to value her own race and seek understanding in the racial experiences of others.”

There’s a lot to unpack there – and I would tweak my own expression of this thought – but I agree with his basic premise and desire. I’ll try not to go too long, but I will attempt to explain it and circle it back to how I feel we should think about “race” as Christians.

My first thought is that we need to understand that race is not a biological reality, but a social construct. Scripture makes clear that “from one man he [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 18:26 NIV 1984). Our common heritage is that we are all from Adam. That is the starting point. As Christians, we can take this a step further and say that we are all “in Christ” – our common heritage is our adoption into the family of God through Christ. Regardless of “racial” identity, we are one in Christ. That identity should inform all other identities we have.

But notice what I did not say – it informs but does not obliterate differences. The fact that race is merely a social construct does not make it any less real in our lived experiences as Americans. To admit that and acknowledge it, even in our churches, does not have to divide us. To ignore it can.

This is what I mean – I have been told by many that “when I see you I don’t see race. I just see you.” I know what they are saying, and I know that it is good. But in reality, you cannot really “see” me unless you see my race. Part of the reality of who I am is my race. It is not something we should shrink back from or ignore; it is part of what makes me a unique individual within the body of Christ. That uniqueness – that diversity – can be celebrated without being cause for division. When that happens, true unity can happen.

The problem is this: In America, race has a sordid painful history. Race was used to separate people and determine who could enjoy all the riches of our democratic society and who would be excluded. There is pain and ugliness involved in discussing race, and we don’t like facing that. But facing it can actually heal us and remove the barriers that exist among us. When we take on the realities of our brothers and sisters and make them our own by virtue of our unity in Christ, we can then work to change that reality within our communities. The pain and injustices of one brother or sister become our own, and we can unite to make a real difference in the lives of all believers. This is true reconciliation.

I have so much more to say, but this post is getting too long. More to come…

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