This resource is part of the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow” explains in this Ted Talk how certain laws disproportionately affect people of color causing similar discrimination as was seen during the Jim Crow laws. This video gives a look into how policies that may not seem racist can perpetuate racial disparities.
We have a special reading today from Josh Brockway, Director of Spiritual Formation who was inspired to write for the “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” program led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
By Josh Brockway, Director of Spiritual Formation
I start my first lectures in my history class by asking the
students to define history. The first student usually offers a riff on
Santayana—those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Usually the
second one, however, is is that “History is told by the winners.”
For centuries the record of the past has been composed by
those who have the education and the time to write. Not only that, those
persons in power have provided the means, money, and permission to tell the
story. From this vantage point of wealth, leisure, and power, the stories
inevitably leave out facts and people that did not reflect well on the
I learned early in my training as an historian that while
the powerful define and tell the story of the past, there are ways of finding
out about everyday people. Traces of the past hold up remarkably well to the
passage of time. Thanks to grocery lists scratched onto broken pieces of
pottery, thoughts and memories sketched into journals, and letters lovingly
wrapped with string and stored in hope chests we can knit together portraits of
the past. Since history is fundamentally the story we tell about the past,
access to these traces help us fill in the gaps in official histories, or the
histories written by the powerful.
While the powerful define and tell the story of the past, there are ways of finding out about everyday people.
In the 20th century historians started looking specifically
for traces of people on the margins or in the gaps of official histories.
Women’s history, Black history, Hispanic history, and even histories about
Children are now common conversations among scholars. Telling the stories of
people overlooked in textbook histories helps us understand the past more
completely. Though there is bound to be uncomfortable parts of these stories,
bits of information we might not want to know or that challenge the stories
were told growing up, histories focused on people at the margins make for a
Black history month is one of those cultural moments each
year when the stories of Black Americans are highlighted because these stories
have been rarely told in textbooks. The story of Black Americans has not been a
part of the dominant historical story taught in our schools and textbooks.
Thankfully, though, Black historians have painstakingly compiled the data and Black
communities have maintained rich stories about Black life in America. With
Black History Month, all of us can hear whispers from the past thanks to these
historians and story-tellers as it reaches the general—and white—public.
Black historians are crafting compelling stories of black
life in America based on their own questions and using the rich trace of Black
life. These better stories are helping us all to understand the breadth of our
past as a nation. And yes, these histories make us as white folks
uncomfortable. They challenge what we have been taught, since what we learned
came from those who benefited from that telling of history.
And even then, we must realize that the better story of our shared past is more than racist policies, violent segregation, and mass incarceration.
Black History includes the beautiful and useful quilts made
in Gee’s Bend Alabama. In this small Black community in the middle of the
Alabama River, families passed down the craft of quilt-making in ways that few
other communities could in the mobile times of the 20th century. The result is
a stunning collection of utilitarian art that embodies the story of the people
who sewed and used the quilts out of the cloth gathered from work clothes,
remnants, and even feed sacks. https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers
Black History includes the rich period of time known as the Harlem Renaissance. From 1910 to the 1930’s, Harlem was the locus of Black art, literature, and music. Notable writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston among many others gathered there to share their stories and ambitions. Musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington added the sounds of Jazz to the nightlife of Harlem at clubs like the Savoy. Artists, playwrites, and actors all shared their creative productions with the community. And much like the rest of America, the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression signaled the decline of the Harlem economy, but the cultural works of the community remain apart of American culture to this day. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance
A clearly American innovation in music, Jazz was the product of cultural interactions in the diverse city of New Orleans. Black musicians merged together ragtime, march, and the blues with improv solos and “trading fours” that mimicked the call and response of Black preachers, to make a distinct form of music. Rock and Hip-hop today have taken a number of cues from Jazz. It has also become a global music since Black artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker performed all over Europe since they faced discrimination in America. https://americanhistory.si.edu/smithsonian-jazz/education/what-jazz
Jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and Gee’s Bend Quilts are just
a small snap-shot of the rich historical contributions of Black Americans to
our culture. These snap-shots fill in the gaps of our text book histories so
that we all learn a better story about our past. And yes, economic, physical,
and emotional terrorism are interwoven into these stories. Yet, telling the
better story means we tell the whole story about all the people.
This is the fifth resource in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
One of the systemic sins in U.S. history is housing discrimination. People of color have been denied mortgages, charged higher interest rates, and have been denied access to homes in predominantly affluent and white neighborhoods. Even after the passing of the Fair Housing Act, these practices that have occurred across the last 100 years still impact the lives of people of color today. The following video includes interviews with Black Americans who share their stories of the housing discrimination they experienced in Chicago. For more information, click here to read an article that goes into greater detail about redlining in Chicago.
This is the fourth reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
Written by Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP
When picking a church, people try to find a church where they “fit
in.” It may be that they attend a church that has a strong children’s program
because they are a young family. It could be they attend a church with
opportunities to share their musical talents or offers services with their
preferred style of music and worship. If your Brethren, you make sure to find a
church that has a lot of fellowship activities with awesome potlucks.
Regardless, most people try to find a church that matches their beliefs in God
and meets their needs and wants. What if one of those “wants” is that the
fellow congregants are the same race as they are?
The most segregated time of the week is Sunday morning, when many
citizens of the United States are attending church. As people choose the church
they want to attend, they choose one where they “fit in.” We tend to “fit in”
at churches where people look like us, act like us, and have similar customs.
The race of people in our congregations often influences our choices even when
we are not aware. We may feel comfortable in a congregation because of specific
practices and traditions, but those traditions come from cultures. Different
ethnicities and different cultures practice their faith and live out their
faith in unique ways. For example, I teach as a college professor, and a
student of mine from Puerto Rico shared how she was reprimanded in high school
for wearing her rosary beads around her neck. In Puerto Rico, wearing one’s
rosary was a symbol of faith! In the continental US, in a predominantly white
Catholic high school, it was a sign of disrespect. So what type of church is
she going to feel most comfortable attending? One where she can proudly wear
her rosary or one where she feels condemnation for doing so? If you were Catholic,
where would you want to attend?
Where we “fit in” at church ends up being segregated by race,
which at face value may not sound like a bad thing. However, history has taught
us that there is no such thing as separate but equal. What ends up happening is
instead of simply coexisting in different churches, we become unaware of
different churches. We become unaware of how others live out their faith. We
become unaware of other customs, traditions, and ways of knowing the Divine. We
become unaware that our way of knowing God is not the only way, and we forget
how to learn. When we stop learning, we end up being the ones who criticize a
young girl for how she wears her rosary beads.
When we practice our faith with people of different races,
customs, and traditions, we learn more about who God is. The Lord created
people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities to worship him in their own
ways. As we practice our faith with people of various backgrounds, we learn
more about who God is because different cultures connect to different
characteristics of God. As a young white woman, the images and characteristics
of God I have grown up with are different than the images and characteristics
of God that a person of color may connect with. For example, for many people of
color, the Lord is a God of liberation. God used Moses to free the people of
Israel who were enslaved and oppressed. During his life, Jesus liberated people
from oppressive forces in society: the sinners, the outcasts, the foreigner,
the poor. He gave them a
new life in a society that had pushed them to the margins. In Luke 4:18-19, we
read that Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of
the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the
poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of
sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the
Lord’s favor’…’Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (NIV).
Jesus did not choose a church because he wanted to “fit in” nor did he spend time with people he fit in with. He chose to spend his time with the marginalized and the outcasts, but it was not solely for the purpose of healing. He broke bread with, lived with, ministered to, and was ministered to by those who were marginalized in society. He lived alongside the oppressed getting to know them, who they were, and what their needs were. If those in positions of power struggle to even learn about who God is from people who are oppressed, how are they going to learn about the person being oppressed and what their needs are. If I, as a young white woman, who is in a position of power simply because of my race do not live alongside people who are oppressed, I may never learn. If I never learn, then I will continue living a segregated life perpetuating discrimination.
Segregation is no longer considered illegal, however much of the
U.S. is segregated by race including housing developments, schools, workforce,
and employment. Even though a company may employ people of different races,
quite often the jobs and duties are segregated by race. Even with affirmative action,
there are various struggles that people of color disproportionately encounter.
For example, a position that requires a master’s degree is often considered a
high-level position, and these positions are disproportionately held by people
who are white. The difficulty comes in attaining a master’s degree. Higher
education in general is costly for people in the United State, including
expenses beyond tuition such as room and board, textbooks, travel, etc. People
of color have a greater likelihood of experiencing financial insecurity than
people who are white. An undergraduate education often is a huge success and
huge financial toll for anyone. For those who experience financial insecurity,
education beyond undergraduate becomes even more difficult and may seem
unattainable. This results in predominantly white affluent people achieving
graduate level education, so the applicant pool for an upper level position
requiring a master’s degree is predominantly white. Even with affirmative
action, the monetary toll of graduate level education and the need to provide
financially for one’s family limits integration in these areas of the
How do we know money is one of the hindrances to integration? It
requires that people live and work alongside those who are oppressed, listening
to their stories and learning from them. If people do not step out of their
comfort zones and remain on the outside looking in, incorrect assumptions will continue
to be made, assuming that people who are oppressed do not have the drive for
graduate level education, or they do not desire those types of jobs. Or concluding
that they have every opportunity as everybody else, but they choose not to get
the education; they are self-segregating!
These assumptions would be wrong.
As we move about our daily lives, instead of always finding places
that we fit in, maybe we need to be looking for places that we don’t fit? Live
alongside people that are different from us and learn what it means for them to
live. What brings them joy, pain, sadness, and trouble? Celebrate with them in
the joyous moments. Mourn with them in the times of pain. Be present even when
it is not comfortable. Live like Jesus lived.
In the United States, our churches are segregated, and the average American’s life mirrors this segregation. Below are various roles people have in our lives. For each of these roles, identify how many people you interact with regularly who are of a different race than you.
______ Clients (people you
work with who are not coworkers)
What are ways that you could increase the diversity of the groups you are a part of? What are some ways you could break out of your comfort zone to live alongside people who are different than you?
of the good Samaritan is often used to explain how our neighbors who we are to
love are not just the people who are like us, but also the people who are
different than us. It is a common Scripture used when discussing race because
the Samaritan extended love and care for the person of a different race; of a
race who he was supposed to despise. By stopping to take care of the man, the
Samaritan showed love for his neighbor. He also stood up to racism in the
process by crossing the racial divide of the two ethnic groups. The Samaritan
put the needs of the person above his own comfort and above societal
What are ways that the Priest and the Levite wanted to protect their comfort over helping the person in need? Who were they “fitting in” with?
What was the Samaritan risking by stopping to help?
When is a time that you saw a “man along the side of the ride,” a time that you encountered racism, but simply continued walking? What could you have done instead?
When is a time that you were the Samaritan, and stood up against racism? How was the experience?
This is the third reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We are offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
By Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP
“How do you deal with Jesus the man, the Christ? Do you take him seriously? His life – his words – his death – his victory? The more I have studied of Jesus the more I realize you cannot take him lightly. What he did was not just for the people in his century, not only Jews or Gentiles, but for men of all ages and all races…. Can I as a Christian and an American remain neutral on the subject? Can I show love for Christ if I do not show love for all of the people for whom he lived and died? Can I show love for God if I do not show love for my neighbor? How can I love God whom I have not seen, if I do not show love for my brother whom I have seen?” – Jay Gibble
The above quote was
preached by Jay Gibble to the Altoona Church of the Brethren at the height of
the Civil Rights movement in 1965. And yet, these prophetic words are still
relevant to racism in the United States today in 2020. In fact, it might be
even harder to live out these words in current day. During the Civil Rights
movement, many around the country rallied together to oppose Jim Crow,
segregation, and overt discrimination against people of color. There were
organized marches, sit-ins, and protests of unfair discriminatory laws and
policies. It was clear what it meant to love your neighbor.
neighbor meant opposing overt discrimination. Loving your neighbor meant
opposing laws that oppressed based on skin color. Loving your neighbor meant,
for many Brethren, protesting alongside people of color in the March of
Washington and participating in sit-ins at lunch counters. It meant standing in
solidarity with fellow Black Americans and fighting for their freedom.
Since the Civil Rights movement, there have been laws passed to prevent overt discrimination based on one’s race. However, there are still many Black Americans who experience regular discrimination and the after-effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Only now it is much harder to see because we often believe the laws fully prevent discrimination. It is harder to see because, while some of the discrimination is based on blatant racial prejudice, sometimes it is based on our own implicit biases that we are unaware of influencing decisions that we make. If you pass a black man on the street, do you happen to clutch your purse a little tighter or cross to the other side of the road? Do you do this more often when it is a black man than a white man?
I caught myself doing this recently. I was taking the metro, and as I was getting off and riding up the escalator, a couple college age students passed by me and bumped into my bag. I started looking through my bag to make sure that nothing was taken, that nothing would have been out in the open that could be snatched, and that all was accounted for. The person who bumped into me was a well-dressed young black man. I caught myself. Have I had multiple people bump into me on the metro? Oh my yes. It is a crowded space. If I frantically looked through my bag every time I got bumped, that is all I would be doing getting on and off the train. So why did I freak out this time? I could tell myself it was just the situation. It could have been the overall behavior of the group or because they were walking past me, not just standing alongside when I was bumped. Though I do not know for sure, it was likely influenced by the fact he was a young black man. What I do know is that because of racial stereotypes, I have to question why I had that thought. Because of implicit prejudice, this young man has probably had many people have a similar reaction that I, as a white woman, will never elicit from people. No matter how much I study about race, I still catch myself in moments of implicit prejudice that I am constantly trying to unlearn.
The problem is, these small moments can lead to larger consequences for people of color. Research conducted by economists in 2004 showed prejudice toward “black sounding names” when measuring callbacks for interviews after sending out 5,000 resumes. When identical resumes were submitted to various jobs, those with black sounding names received fewer callbacks than those with white sounding names, even though the resumes had the same qualifications. In fact, those with white sounding names and a criminal record still received more call backs than those with black sounding names and no criminal record. This type of discrimination leads to long lasting consequences where Black Americans make on average less money than white Americans even when education is accounted for, and Black Americans have 1/10 the amount of wealth as their white counterparts.
So how do we love our neighbors amidst these implicit prejudices? How do we love our neighbors when these circumstances seem beyond our control? When I think of Jesus’ life on earth, I think of the man who did not just love by being nice to the people he was around. Jesus loved by changing people’s worlds. Many of the people Jesus healed were outcasts of society, discriminated against because of some physical quality. An example that comes to my mind is the woman who bled for 12 years (Mark 5:25-34). Quite often when we hear her story, we focus on her faith. All she had to do was touch Jesus’ cloak, and she was made well. Her faith in this Scripture is evident, but let us look at a slightly different angle.
Why was she so desperate for Christ’s healing? Not only had she bled for 12 years straight, something no one wants to endure, but she was also outcasted from society because of her condition. When a woman was on her menstrual cycle, she was unable to touch anybody, or else they would be deemed unclean. Anything she sat on would be deemed unclean, and if someone touched an object that she had touched, that would cause them to be unclean. This woman would have spent 12 years unable to have human contact, and unable to be in a public space. Anyone she would have been around would have been suspect and anything she may have touched would have been suspect. The healing Jesus provided not only healed the physical ailment of the issue of blood but also reconciled her relationship with society, giving her new life where she was no longer an outcast.
What if our racist policies and our prejudices are the “issue of blood” that support Black Americans being outcasted in society, causing us to question things they touch; question who they are with; question their presence? What if instead of praying for healing of discrimination in the US as a healing of the Black situation that keeps them pushed down, we pray for a healing in our hearts and the hearts of people, and we pray for healing in our policies to support Black Americans? We pray that God moves us to action like Jesus was moved to action because of the woman’s faith. Maybe loving our neighbors, who are of different races, is a process of confronting our own racial prejudices, learning about racial discrimination that is still occurring, and working toward making change; working toward Jesus’ healing in ourselves and in our country.
Activity and Reflection
As part of working toward
healing, it is important to know what implicit prejudices may influence us.
Below is a link to the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) developed by Harvard
University. The IAT is intended to measure how quickly we may associate certain
words with others. The idea is that we tend to associate words more quickly if
we believe they are similar. To learn more about the IAT, click here. The IAT usually takes
about 10 minutes to complete. If you are interested in completing one of the
tests, please click here and choose one of the
IAT’s on race.
Beyond the examples provided above, what were some ways people would have interacted with the woman because of her condition?
How would this have impacted her relationships with others? How would this have impacted her ability to provide for a family?
What did your IAT score come back as? Are you surprised by the score?
According to Harvard, most of the race-based IAT results show preference for white over black in some capacity. How does this pattern result in similar outcomes for people of color as seen in biblical times for the bleeding woman before her healing?
Bertrand Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Emily and Greg More Employable
Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” American
Economic Review 94 (2004): 991-1013.
 A. Javier
Trevino, Investigating Social Problem, 2nd edition (California: Sage Publishing, 2019), 61-62
This is the second reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We are offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
Reflection by Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP
A common concept used when discussing race is being color blind: “I don’t see race, I see people.” While this sentiment seems to come from good intentions, it can have negative implications. In the following TED Talk, Mellody Hobson discusses the complications of being color blind. However, she offers another perspective, a way to be “color brave.”
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”
1 Corinthians 12:14-15 NRSV
Have you ever looked at this Scripture and said, “My foot is part of my body. I don’t see feet; I only see a body.” It’s not a statement I have ever said, and it sounds quite foolish to me; but why? If we do not recognize our foot as its own unique part of the body, we do not recognize its unique contributions. Without feet, we would have difficulty walking, running, and simply standing, as many people unfortunately have had to experience. The body is changed significantly because of the loss of a specific, unique part. This change would be experienced very differently than the loss of a different body part, such as a gallbladder. A foot and a gallbladder serve different functions. They have distinct gifts that they provide for the body, and not having that gift would mean a significant change in how the body works and the lifestyle the person would live.
From a young age, we teach kids to identify various body parts, through songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” As they grow older, we teach the same thing about people and the Body of Christ. We recognize different spiritual gifts, such as teaching, speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy. We recognize intellectual gifts, encouraging some to be doctors, some to be teachers, and others to be electricians. Yet, often when we look at race, we think we should be color blind and not see any differences.
I believe some of this movement came about with the intentions of reducing discrimination. If I don’t see color, then I will hire the best person for the job without letting racial prejudice affect my judgment. The problem is, by removing someone’s race, we are removing someone’s gift. We don’t see the unique perspectives and life experiences someone has had because of their race. We don’t see their unique qualities and value. We also do not see the distinctive ways people have been oppressed because of their race, remaining blind to networks of oppression and policies that uniquely affect people of color.
When we remain color blind, we also don’t recognize that we have unique experiences and perspectives because of our race, and since those experiences are unique, they are not the same for everybody in the U.S. Our view of life is not the standard. Our perspectives and lived experiences are just as different, but no more or less important, than the hand is from the foot. The hand, foot, and gallbladder are all distinct parts, but they are parts of one body allowing that body to function in a specific way. The diversity of experiences, perspectives, and assumptions of all people of all races, cultures, and backgrounds are necessary for the Body of Christ to be whole and for God’s Kin-dom to flourish.
How were you taught to think about race? Were you taught to be color blind or were you taught to recognize and value differences based on race?
The TED Talk mainly focused on the benefits of being color brave in a corporate setting. What are other benefits of being color brave and benefits of diversity?
Reread verses 25-26. If our foot suffers, the whole body suffers. If a member of the Body of Christ suffers, are we all suffering? Does being color blind inhibit our ability to suffer alongside people of a different race?
This is the first reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
Written by Alexandra Toms; Racial Justice Associate in OPP
Why do I need to talk about racism?
Why as a Christian should I be concerned about racism? I myself am
not racist. I am raising my children not to be racist. I even have friends who
are not white. So what more do you want me to do?
Why do I need to talk about racism?
There are laws on the books that prevent further racism. Brown vs
the Board of Education ensures integrated schools. The Civil Rights Act
protects against discrimination in public and in jobs. We have even gone as far
as Affirmative Action to help right some of these wrongs.
Why do I need to talk about racism?
It’s been over 150 years since slavery ended and over 50 years
since the Civil Rights Movement. Individuals may have been slower to change,
but they are growing older. The younger generations do not even see the color
of your skin. Discrimination is now part of the past.
Why do I need to talk about racism?
Even though 50 years have passed, for some it seems like just
yesterday. A grandmother drops her grandkids at school, reflecting on the
taunts and jeers experienced when she first went to a white school. She
remembers drinking from the “colored” water fountain and being denied a seat at
the lunch counter. The freedom riders assaulted; buses burned integrating rest
stops. The memories and pain, not as absent as she had once hoped.
And now that the grandmother takes her grandkids to school in a
time known for integration, she looks around hoping that her grandkids future
is different. But her grandkids’ school is predominantly black. Her grandkids
being raised in Harlem, not more than a block away from where she raised the
Despite the integration that her parent’s generation work for,
this grandmother sees her grandkids in such a similar situation. The schools
are barely integrated, with only a few white children. Teachers are understaffed,
the system underfunded. The students’ textbooks haven’t been replaced since
early 2000. The history books not even reflecting the nation’s Black President.
Grandma watches her grandkids and hopes they can break the cycle
of poverty and despair, go to trade school or college, get an education, and a
job that is stable. Because they could be the first to buy a home for
themselves, be able to take out a mortgage, denied to her, unaffordable for her
Maybe they will leave Harlem, move into the suburbs. They can
raise a family, their kids at a school with new textbooks and iPads. But for now
she just prays they get through middle school, not having to worry about these
things that race through her mind in the school yard. She hopes that despite
the educational system, they will be happy young kids, ready to conquer the
world. She knows they’ll need that spunk and grit, for the uphill battle they
don’t know they’ll have to climb.
So why do I need to talk about racism?
Because the struggle the grandmother and her grandkids work
through, are ones that have developed from a long line of discrimination.
Patterns of behavior from slavery and segregation, have paved the way for this
young family’s current situation. A lack of training and opportunity, and a
lack of family wealth have all been created by the past oppression denying
So maybe I’m not racist, and I am teaching my kids not to see color, but am I actually doing the right thing, or should I do more to be anti-racist. What’s mine to do about structures creating oppression? Where can I speak out and up for those pushed down despite legislation.
Do I know a family like the grandmother and grandkids, have I
shown them grace, or cast judgment on their situation? Can I look beyond the moment,
at present decisions, and see what other factors have led to what I have deemed
This is why we talk about racism, so we can see the grandmother
and her grandkids as fellow children created in the Lord’s image. If we are to
love the Lord’s children, love our neighbors as ourselves, we can’t be okay
with the oppression they have experienced, the discrimination they have felt.
But we have to be able to see it, to recognize there is still
discrimination, or else we blindly believe the grandmother’s situation is based
solely on poor decisions. And this blind belief leads back to the original
thinking that racism is over, solved by laws, legislation and colorblind
thinking. If that is our thought, we miss an entire network of oppression,
keeping God’s children below us, participating in the discrimination.
Reflection Questions and Scripture
When you think of racism, what thoughts and emotions are brought up for you?
As we start this journey learning and relearning about Black history in the U.S., what do you hope to gain?
Do you have any fears or concerns as we enter into this month? Are there reasons you may be feeling tentative?
Read Psalm 139:14 and Ephesians 2:10
In Psalm 139:14, David writes that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ephesians 2:10 says that we are “God’s masterpiece.” If a close friend of yours loaned you a piece of artwork that they had created, their masterpiece, how would you care for that piece of art? If you had to travel with the artwork to get it to point A to point B you would most likely handle it with an immense amount of care. You would probably take extra precaution getting it in and out of the car. You may even drive a little slower if it is something delicate. I worked at alongside a wedding coordinator for several years, and the most anxiety provoking part of the entire job was dealing with the wedding cake. Usually, we would just add some decorations to the table, and add some flowers to the cake, and even that little amount was done in very slow, deliberate movements. The worst time was when the cake arrived the day before, and we were in charge of taking it from the walk-in cooler and setting it on the cake table. I do not think I ever pushed that cart so slow or had my heart racing so fast at a wedding. This was someone’s masterpiece, and not just the person who made it, but also the couple who it was made for. It was their masterpiece.
We are God’s masterpieces; each of us, made by God, in the Lord’s image. What if we treated each other with as much respect, care, and sensitivity as the cake? How would the world be different?
If something would have happened to the wedding cake, not only would I have been horrified that a masterpiece was damaged, but I would have been embarrassed, ashamed, and sorrowful for the couple who commissioned the cake. When we hurt other people, fellow masterpieces, do we feel ashamed, embarrassed, and sorrowful in response to God?
The final installment of this series dwells on “future,” likely the least considered time frame when thinking of black history. Afrofuturism is a term that has grown in public awareness, mostly used in arts and academic circles, and centers on this very idea.
Afrofuturism is a bit of a complex concept, but it’s explained well in an episode of This American Life. One of the hosts, Neil Drumming, says: “What I like about Afrofuturism, it just seems very—it’s like this way of talking about black people in a way that’s really hopeful.” Ira Glass follows up later, saying, “[a]nd for so long, in so many imaginings of the future, in so much science fiction, there were no black people at all—which, as Neil points out, makes no sense. He says, you can tell black people are going to make it into the future because they’ve survived so much already over the centuries.” It’s a way of thinking about the future that takes into account the lived history of black people while also being creative and positive about what’s to come. These themes can be seen in pop culture in blockbuster movies like Black Panther and the work of musicians like Janelle Monae, whose albums often feature characters and narratives set in futuristic, spacey worlds.
This is the definition I will be using for the sake of this reflection—Afrofuturism as a hopeful, imaginative way of thinking about the future for black people. It’s an approach that is not only important for changing the way we as non-black people can think about black futures, but it also challenges us as the church to change how we think about our own future.
Tracy K. Smith is a poet whose work is thoroughly imbued with this imaginative, galaxy-strewn setting. Both poems I’ve included here explore human themes in universal language. In “The Universe is a House Party,” she says:
“We grind lenses to an impossible strength,
Point them toward the future, and dream of beings
We’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:
How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch
At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,
Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.
Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.
Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.”
In this poem, she paints a future in which we are of course hospitable to aliens, to those who come from far reaches of the universe, and we are sincere in our welcome of these other beings. In describing this scene, she reveals the stark contrast to today, in which we find it difficult to welcome other humans with distinct differences from our own communities. She imagines a brilliant future in which we aren’t burdened by prejudice and hate, and it challenges us to do the work now so we can reach that starry future.
She is not deluded in this fantastical future—she tells of incredibly strong telescopes built for no other reason than a deep human curiosity of what is out there. Maybe from here, we can get to a place of equally deep hospitality.
Tracy K. Smith said at an event, “Imagining, for me, is an act that allows for a different kind of engaging with things.” As we look toward the future of the Church of the Brethren, we must accept the challenge to engage with issues differently, creatively, and imaginatively.
Smith said in an interview about one of the poems in her book, Life on Mars, “Part of what I’ve been trying to ask myself to do is think, OK, we belong to the history of the centuries that we span, but we’re also part of something enormous. What if we think about our actions as having some bearing upon the history of eternity? What would we change if those were the stakes that we were cognizant of?”
This is the way the church needs to think about our future. We need to be cognizant of the stakes—if there’s anything that our faith tells us, is that our actions have bearing on the history of eternity. We need to take our commitment to racial justice, to true hospitality, to telling black stories, to lamenting our broken past, very seriously, because there are high stakes.
Clint Smith’s poem, “what the cathedral said to the black boy,” stands as a goal for the church in the future. The cathedral that he describes is, unfortunately, not what our church has always been for people of color. We want to be a refuge, but we must recognize the ways we have at times caused pain instead. His words should be a call to action for us all: “ain’t we all just trying to be / some type of sanctuary for someone? for every year we are not destroyed / do they not remind us what a miracle / it is to have lasted this long?” As the church, it should be our primary goal to be “some type of sanctuary” for populations that have long been targeted and oppressed.
What are our congregations not saying to the black boy, and how can we better say to them:
If you haven’t read the first post in this series, please read it here first.
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
Both Clint Smith’s and Mahogany Browne’s poems begin with “today.” They immediately place us in the current day, the present, such as the start of a news story that has just occurred. Whether they actually happened today or not, the situations described in each poem still circle around us daily, asking what we as a church can do for justice in this very moment.
“Today, a black man who was once a black boy
like you got down on one of his knees & laid
his helmet on the grass as this country sang
its ode to the promise it never kept”
“today i am a black woman in america
& i am singing a melody ridden lullaby…”
They were written two years apart but, in many ways, coexist in the same space. Smith is thinking about what it means to be a father raising a black child today, and yet, the question of tomorrow is factored into each thought. He says about this poem: “This is part of a series of poems […] thinking through what it means to watch my son discover the world for the first time [and] what it means to watch the world discover him. How [people] who call him adorable now might very well call him dangerous when he’s older.”
Smith spoke at a performance in 2016 about how, when he was in college, he was looking for “work that spoke to the urgency of now,” and how he found this in spoken word poetry. Now as a poet himself, his work definitely speaks to the urgency of now. In “Your National Anthem,” which acts as a letter to his very young son, Smith speaks to this in his reference to Colin Kaepernick’s protest while also speaking to the impending future that presses on his mind as a father.
“I know that you will not always
be a black boy but one day you may be a black man
& you may decide your country hasn’t kept
its promise to you either”
In “litany,” Browne is reflecting on what it looks like to live as “a brown and black & / bew woman dreaming of freedom.” She says, “today, i am a mother, & my country is burning/ and i forget how to flee.” Browne wrote this poem as a response to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” as sung by Nina Simone.
“I sat with what that meant, years later—when I am still wishing for a certain type of freedom. To think of the time passing but of senseless deaths of black and brown bodies remaining. The poem is mulling all that has changed and all that has not,” Browne says of her work.
This is truly what it means to reflect on the present, today, the current state in which we live. All that has changed and all that has not. The urgency of now.
Today’s movements for racial justice and equity are not separate from the civil rights and abolition movements of the past that we now honor. Yes, today’s movements are tied to politics, but, most fundamentally, they are made up of everyday people who are yearning for freedom, for safety for their children, for trust that their country values their lives.
The 1991 Report of the Committee on Brethren and Black Americans says: “Because racism is built into our way of life, it is extremely difficult to unmask it and honestly face the radical changes that need to be made in ourselves and our institutions if it is to be eradicated. […] Many of us benefit from racist practices, without being direct participants, because of decisions and policies already in place in our religious, economic, and political institutions. The Church of the Brethren has affirmed that war is sin. It is time we acknowledged racism as sin—sin against God and against our neighbors—and mount a concerted effort to combat it.”
What does it mean for the church to speak to the urgency of now, keeping in mind what has and has not changed in all these years?
I don’t have an easy answer, but I do know that if we pat ourselves on the back for holding up lauded figures in black history such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman, perhaps we should also ask about lesser-known black history that is being written as we speak and what we can do to add our voices to the call for justice in this very moment.
This is not about simply remembering heroes of the past or imagining some potential day in the future that calls us to action. This is about looking at the world around us and asking ourselves how we can support our brothers and sisters—who right now are afraid for their families, yearning for freedom, and demanding justice—in such a time as this.
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.”
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.