3 Reasons Christians Should Study Black History
I learned about the struggles and difficulties of being Black in America at a young age. Despite growing up in a middle class family where my parents were both educated, I was taught that my educational opportunities, though necessary and important, are not remedies to the prevailing structural racism that continued to plague America. At the same time, I was educated about Black history and culture, watching movies with my parents about how Black people have persevered through difficult times and how their prophetic, Christian faith has been an effective tool in advancing social change. Movies like “The Vernon Johns Story: The Road to Freedom” and books like Black Boy exposed me to the richness of Black prophecy and Black literature.
As I transitioned into high school, I began questioning more about Black history and how it was being represented in classrooms. While I was confident in and proud of my Black heritage, I started to wonder why the history books never talked about Black history prior to slavery. I often heard statements like “Black history started with slavery,” or “African countries have made no contributions to civilization.” While I was attending a relatively liberal school, I was hearing statements that mirrored the logic of white supremacist rhetoric about the inferiority of the Black race. This frustration led me to a book club with some friends where we studied African-centered material from great scholars including Molefi Asante. The club gave me more pride in being Black as well as a broader scope of Black history. While I have questioned and challenged many aspects of Afrocentricity as I moved into adulthood, I realized that much of the literature that I read helped me become more interested in being a lifelong learner and a passionate advocate for racial justice. Furthermore, as a Christian, I have appreciated the works of liberation theologians like James Cone and Howard Thurman, who have served as great supplements to Scripture for my spiritual grounding in racial justice and Black history.
Here are 3 lessons I have learned about Black history and the intersection of Christian faith.
Black History is a Part of Christian History
The church cannot ignore or undermine Black history. The Black church has played a major role in both American and World Christian history. Some of the earliest Christian churches remain in Africa, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Black slaves used the Christianity that was forced on them as a tool of liberation that remains effective today. One of the ways in which slaves used Christianity as a tool of liberation was through slave spirituals, which, along with protest gospel songs in the 20th century, provided hope and inspiration in the midst of social injustice. Black liberation theologians in the 20th century helped influence liberation theology in other countries. The church globally and nationally should not ignore or undermine the value of the Black church in bringing many of the works of minor prophets in the Bible to a contemporary application and forcing churches to challenge systemic oppression.
Celebration of Black history Should include diverse worship and literature
As echoed in a few recent articles on worship and Christian literature, many churches that are committed to creating a global church are inconsistent with how that global mission translates into the worship and into supplemental Christian literature. So often, both progressive and conservative churches sing worship songs written by European or White American Christians and are often uninformed and/or ignorant of gospel music and other non-white Christian worship genres. In some cases, the assumption is that artists like Chris Tomlin or bands like Hillsong are representative of true Christian worship. The same can be said of Christian literature as classic theologians like C.S. Lewis and contemporary writers like Tim Keller are the faces of Christian literature. While I am inspired by the spirit-led worship of Tomlin and Hillsong and have been moved by writings of Lewis and Keller, they are not fully representative of Christian literature and assuming so creates the perception that all great theologians and Christian singers are White. Recognizing how Black history was being ignored and undermined in different aspects of our broader society gave me eyes to witness the same deficiencies in many churches. To truly celebrate Black history in the church, Christians must be inclusive in our worship and in our supplemental literature for small groups and Bible studies. It will only help the church in its commitment and desire for a global church that is talked about in the Bible.
Churches should understand Black history to avoid mistakes of the past
The rationale I was always taught in learning history in school was that without knowing our past, we are deemed to repeat it. The same can be said for churches in their relationship to Black history. Understanding the roles that many churches played in supporting colonialism, slavery, anti-miscegenation laws, and other injustices are examples of how churches can be so conformed to the patterns of the world that they intentionally engage in evil. It is rather natural for many Christians and churches to look back at the atrocities of the 19th and 20th centuries and believe that we would stand up and oppose such evil, but the reality is many of us wouldn’t–because so many churches either actively or passively supported racism and that remains the case today. Studying and understanding history in a deep and committed way can help churches take action today to avoid repeating the same mistakes of previous generations.
Black History remains an important role in American society and should be viewed the same way within the Christian faith. Yet, as learned in my continual study of Black history, history should not just be a means to understanding the past. It should be used to combat the same racist ideas and worldviews that have created and maintained injustices, including the ideas of Black inferiority, the canonization of Western culture, and demonizing of Eastern culture. As we reflect on this Black History Month, let us study and understand Black history, and work to be the church that represents justice rather than replicating injustice.
Jonathan Holmes is a Christian who has advocated for racial justice in Chicago for over two years. He has written about the intersection of race, class and Christian faith for multiple magazines and is an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction. Follow Jonathan on LinkedIn and on Twitter.