Black History Month: Future

If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.


  1. The Universe is a House Party,” by Tracy K. Smith (video)
  2. The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” by Tracy K. Smith
  3. what the cathedral said to the black boy,” by Clint Smith III

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:

“come inside child

rest yourself

it’s okay to want to be held”

Black History Month: Present

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)


  1. Your National Anthem” (2018), by Clint Smith III
  2. litany” (2016), by Mahogany L. Browne

“Your National Anthem,” by Clint Smith III

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.

For Smith:

“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”

For Browne:

“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.

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.


  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.

Song and Story Fest

Group singing at Song and Story Fest 2014

Singing at Song and Story Fest 2014 at Camp Inspiration Hills

The exposition begins at Camp Brethren Woods, where four peace-loving young adults join forces to begin a summer of exploration and transformation together. The scene is set as our main characters set out to spread Jesus’ gospel of peace to young people in their formative years at formative places – summer camp. The action rises as each new week follows a familiar rhythm of getting to know campers, presenting a message that we find important, and subsequently discovering how we can all work together to further the Kingdom in a world of violence and corruption. The climax? In the short-term, it comes when we form genuine human connections that enable us all to be tied up together in the work of peacemaking and justice-building.

But we, as the Youth Peace Travel Team and members of a wider network of Jesus people, are part of a much larger story. The resolution is perhaps unidentifiable at this point in our lives, although we work toward the ultimate goal of worldwide inclusivity, justice, and earth-shaking peace. This is but a snippet of the story of our summer and of our lives. Our Author is busy at work, constantly editing our story with sweeping pen strokes that intertwine the birds of the air with the songs of our hearts. This week will go down as a colorful page in the story of our lives.

At Song and Story Fest, we were inspired and encouraged to listen and share the stories that impact us. Whether these narratives are shared through words, music, or moments of sweet Quaker silence, each have the potential to speak to those around us in a powerful way. Our team came into the week as porous sponges, ready to absorb the wisdom of seasoned storytellers. We soaked up tall tales and tear-filled testimonies around the campfire each night. We clapped our hands (or paws, or anything we got now) and joyfully sang along to witty political interpretations and heartwarming Kumquat tunes. We used our free time to get to know distant relatives, system fighters, and each other, and hear what stories their lives have told.

The team contributed our stories in our two most preferred mediums – skits and raps. We challenged the youth and ourselves alike to confront wrongs on both personal and global levels, through leading reflective workshops and inviting open discussion. We truly loved learning new songs, whether we were called to join in groovy dance moves or simply let the chipper mandolin strumming permeate our souls. We often sang loudly with our voices, but were further encouraged to let our lives sing louder. We will sing the message of love and reconciliation, of the urgent need for action, of the power in numbers of people who embrace life and share it abundantly.

So, what is your story? What are the prevailing themes of your life that beg to be shared? As we continue along this journey of teaching and intentional self-reflection, we invite you to join us in the discovery and singing of the story of our lives.


During the week the Youth Peace Travel Team were called upon to lead what was entitled the “Youth Rap Session” scheduled for 3:30 pm on Wednesday, between the women sharing stories on Tuesday and the men sharing stories on Thursday. Although rapping is our forte, the team decided we could open up this time for youth to talk about their own struggles. Adults were encouraged to join in and lend some insight into how one grows out from adolescence. Fitting with Song and Story Fest, the moment that most touched me was a story my brother told. Alex and I both told stories, and he began with a story about how we got caught in a snow storm at Mammoth Mountain on the last day of a trip. He talked about how I had kept pushing him to “not die” (how dramatic he is) and the hilarity of traveling with my father. Afterwards I shared a story about how Alex taught me to be a better brother and truly listen. Alex taught me that I was not being an equal with him and that restricted our relationship. But above all he showed the profound healing of forgiveness.

Both of us had heard all of these stories before, but then my brother got up and shared a story I was surprised to hear. Our mother and father split up when Alex was young and my father remarried which became increasingly difficult for my brother. One summer we were to spend time in Washington with our stepmother at the new house on Beaver Lake. Alex expressed his discomfort and apathy at the house until I forced him to go out on a paddle boat with me. Alex explained that we would swim, paddle, enjoy little games and not give a care about when lunch was because we were together. Being brothers mattered, being together mattered, being away from it all and focusing on fun mattered. I had never heard how much paddle boating with him in Beaver Lake had meant. I had always heard my brother tell me about how I was a big part of his life and how he would not have been the same without me. But this time he gave me a story in which I had helped him deal with his own issues. I enjoy telling stories as well of the influence of Alex on my own life. I was captivated though when he finally started telling his own stories and how I had helped in some way. My brother is one of the most special individuals in my entire life and I cherish every moment with him. In this one moment he encapsulated all the events we had shared, and what it meant to be brothers to me. Thank you so much Alex. I love you.


There are many stories in my life. Stories of success and stories of failure. Stories of my passions and stories of my displeasures. But the story that I had the opportunity to share at Song and Story Fest is one of peace and family. Every year on Martin Luther King Junior Day my father and sister were advocators of the McPherson, Kansas community showing support for equality on that holiday. Because of this support I got a lot of exposure to MLK and his teachings.

One of the storytellers for the week was none other than Matt Guynn, the program director for nonviolent change at On Earth Peace. Matt presented on the Beloved Community, an idea made very prevalent by Martin Luther King Junior. Matt presented us with an informational packet regarding the Beloved Community which started with a handful of MLK quotes and historical context for them being said. As soon as I read these quotes I knew that I had a story to tell using them. I took the quotes from the packet and broke them up into lines, as if it were a poem. I then made couplets using the lines from MLK’s quotes followed with my own lines. My lines were parallel thoughts to the MLK quotes but related to issues I see prevalent in today’s society. Many of these issues easily relate to racial inequality because they are movements occurring today over social justice, i.e. political representation, homosexuality, and women’s rights. The team received high marks after the presentation of my poetic interpretation of these quotes.

I typically am not a poetic guy. In fact, in high school I absolutely dreaded English class because I knew I didn’t enjoy poetic interpretation or extensive reading/writing. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why this project stood out to me. It may have been out of my comfort zone, but my heart told me that I had a story to tell and that this was the way it was meant to be told. I think it just goes to show you how sometimes we can surprise ourselves with passion and drive we didn’t know was there.


Children at the microphone at Song and Story Fest 2014

Song and Story Fest 2014 at Camp Inspiration Hills

Song and Story Fest at Camp Inspiration Hills truly brought with it a breeze of refreshment. With tales that evoked much shared laughter as well as tears, the life stories brought to fest were real. It’s difficult to describe the unique vibe found there, a place where anyone can go to the microphone and share their thoughts. Some memorable ones for me:

1. One woman, who ended up having one of the most calming voices I’ve ever heard, came to the mic and paused. The first words that came out of her mouth were, “Y’know, I love you all.”

2. A small boy came up front and sang The Element Song (listing all the elements of the periodic table) at the top of his lungs and in a key only wolves can hear—and it was beyond impressive!

3. Mutual Kumquat (with my marvelous bro, Jake, playin’ bass) did a concert including a fruit and vegetable song battle that was the definition of epic.

Soaking up the atmosphere that radiated positivity and love caused me to have a renewed peace within myself in more ways than one. As cheesy as it sounds, I really was inspired at that camp! Especially after hearing Matt Guynn’s chant (with accompanying dance moves):

If we want to move this mountain, we must work together.

If we want to move this mountain, we must work together!

With love & a rejuvenated passion for peace,


Camp Inspiration Hills, July 6 – 12, 2014