Black History Month: Past

For the end of Black History Month, I have curated three small collections of poetry, each with an accompanying reflection. The three reflections will dwell on the ideas of “past,” “present,” and “future.” Too often, it seems people and events must be decades old to be documented by the mainstream as “black history.” We must remember that black history is being created today, shaped by the past and informing the future. Looking at black stories from our past, present, and future requires us to think critically about how the church tells its own stories, as well as which stories we deem to be “our own.”

Langston Hughes, April 1942. By Jack Delano.

Past

  1. Frederick Douglass,” by Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
  2. Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
  3. I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store,” Eve L. Ewing (1986-)

We begin with past—the time with the clearest tie to the concept of history—and with Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass.” Hayden’s words are a perfect framing for the way we should approach the past. He asserts that this incredible man, a former slave turned renowned abolitionist, will be honored not by the typical trappings of American remembrance, but instead by “the lives grown out of this life, the lives / fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”

The past is not some dusty relic to be pulled out of a dark cabinet for a few days each year. It is something that we tell and retell every day, choosing which stories we highlight and the language we use to tell them. The people who make up today’s movements are the “lives grown out of this life,” the flesh on the bones of an idea that was once only a dream.

In Langston Hughes’s famous poem, “Let America Be America Again,” he challenges the narratives America tells about itself—narratives of freedom for all, where dreams are lived out and opportunities are ripe for the taking, if only one does the hard work to snatch them up. Hughes instead repeats the refrain, (America never was America to me.) He not only refers to his own identity as a black man, but also dons the identities of other oppressed peoples, such as Native Americans, farmers, immigrants, and poor. He rewrites the story, not saying that he doesn’t belong in America, but rather that America first and foremost belongs to those who built it.

Brethren openly condemn this dangerous type of American nationalism that ignores injustice and calls for blind obedience. In the 1967 statement “The Church, the State and Christian Citizenship,” Annual Conference asserted: “The church must warn against idolatrous nationalism in foreign affairs and call people to broader horizons of concern. In relation to domestic policy the church will try to help and to protect those who have been deprived of their rightful voice and are neglected or injured in some way.”

Eve Ewing takes a different approach to the past. In her quiet poem set in an ordinary grocery store, she imagines an alternate past in which 14-year-old Emmett Till was not brutally murdered. Instead, he has grown old, become a familiar face in the community, lived a long life. This is a moment of peace for a story that is only one of extreme violence and tragedy.

“How are things going for you,” she asks.

“Oh, it goes, it goes.”

By telling this story, one which was never allowed to happen, she manages to tell Till’s story all the same. His story is one of a young life brutally cut short by men so deeply entrenched in racism that they took the life of an innocent boy. It is the false memory of this ordinary moment in the grocery store, a brief glimpse of warmth, that brings the harsh reality of the past rushing in. She references everything Till’s life and death represent without saying it. “It goes, it goes” suggests the echo that, in fact, it does not.

As Christians, and as people in community, we use stories from the past to help us define who we are. We tell and retell the stories from the Bible to provide the foundation for understanding our identities and the world around us. All three of these poems by black writers ask us questions about which stories from the past we tell and how they inform us now. As we remember black history, perhaps we need to be creative about imagining new ways for the church to tell its stories and grapple with its past.

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