The Rev. Ronald S. Bonner, Sr., pastor of a vibrant African-American Christian community that is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has also been the Manager for Multicultural Resources at Augsburg Fortress – the ELCA’s publishing arm. His post, a loud clarion call for Black History education, is both the perfect entree for this month’s readings and an excellent continuation the ELCA’s recent conversations on race – initiated by the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton – in the wake of the shootings at Mother Emanuel AME back in June. Please read and share, and keep the conversation going!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.”
Black history in general is under attack in an effort to diminish the accomplishments of Black people. Black history month from its inception (which started out as a week in February) was conceived to promote and highlight overlooked accomplishments by Black people. Black history month — despite all of the efforts to sanitize it — is still an important time in the lives of Black Americans and others.
Historians in the early 20th century were satisfied with identifying only the accomplishments of white Americans in fulfilling the manifestation of what would become the United States of America. What was seen in the culture in white-washed movies, television programming, and the arts was a mirror reinforcement of what was posted in so-called history books. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that there was a lucid and strident effort to include a more dynamic and comprehensive presentation of the contributions to the development and establishment of the United States of America by Black people. Black History week and now month was and is an exercise in agency and determination by Black people.
In too many cases the effort to diminish the importance of Black History Month resulted in an anemic, second rate exhibition of relics. It was not an energized display of the vastness of American history that was wrought and forged by the gritty determination and ingenuity of Black people. I remember when my children were young, and I would go to their schools and see the rote repetition of the same photos that were shown each year. These were the sacred cows or relics of Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Madame C. J. Walker, and maybe a Mary Cloud Bethune. In other words, there was little effort to expand beyond the usual suspects or cast of characters. In what felt like a narrow admittance of contributions limited to those who had passed the sanitized test of being non-threating.
The nauseating repetition of the same characters from history with little effort or interest to expand plagued black history month during much of the later years on the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. Now I love Dr. King, and his theology is central to my theology and theological reflection. But what about adding a Toussaint L’ Ouverture? Oprah Winfrey is a welcomed addition. But what about a Ms. Ursula Burns?
The point is simple. Black History month must be more than a rote exercise in feigned appreciation and token acceptance and remembrance, and in many places it is more.
With that said, the continued significance of Black History Month is that it is a concretized and rooted effort from Black people to resist being made invisible by a larger society that needs to maintain a cultural superiority and refuses to fully accept the wealth of contributions by Black Americans; see #OscarsSoWhite for more clarification.
Black history month is an effort to stretch the fabric of the American Dream to demand the inclusion of Black people. It is a sustained effort to focus our minds in order to free them of cultural control and a second class citizen mentality. Black history month is needed to free the dominant culture from an oppressive mindset grounded in a narcissistic delusion of pseudo self-importance and privilege, a privilege that comes from a false reinforced cultural notion of self-worth by devaluating the worth and importance of others.
If not for the memory and an oral history spoken by brave individuals who reminded the world about the contributions of black people, we would have been forced to accept a history of paltry contributions by Black Americans. Black history month is the absence of negation, and is a time when Black People engage in the exercise of agency and remembrance of who we are and whose we are.
In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy God is speaking to Moses and commands Moses to teach by whose hand the children of Israel were freed from their bondage. God is not asking. God is commanding Moses to do this. This shared history would enable the community to go forth from this place of in-between-time to occupy the future that God desires for them. God determined that history was important. It serves as a source of strength for future accomplishments.
Thus, the words of Carter G. Woodson are important in shaping future outcomes: “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
Without a sense of history one’s self-image can be defined by someone other than oneself, creating a context for devaluation and deception. We see this in movies like the “Ten Commandments” that moved the images of the people reflected from African to European. The point is this: recalling history is a self-check of one’s value and self-worth. History helps to establish one’s relationship with their context. Devaluing one’s history places one in a state of not understanding one’s relationship with one’s formation whether individual, community, or corporate. The denial of a positive past and little to no encouragement for a positive present truncates one’s vision for a positive future. When one is stuck in an oppressive now or present, without the ability to look back and draw strength for the not yet or future their ability to create for themselves a suitable platform for progress is greatly impaired. Remember, “where there is not vision, the people perish.” History gives people a vision from which to draw strength for the struggles of today and the hopes for tomorrow.
Again, the Deuteronomy text commands that the history is to be taught! Deuteronomy 11.19 declares, “teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” Black history month has significance if for no other reason than God has commanded those who seek to be part of God’s family to discuss the history of the people and, in the case of the Hebrew children — and I contend Black people as well — to discuss that God has been central and the cause of survival. Thus, as Christians we are to tell the story of our ancestors, but also how God was an active agent for social and historical change for Black people. We are to tell how God, regardless of how burdened we became because of evil in the world, always made a way for God’s people to survive and achieve.
On a recent broadcast of the Roland Martin Radio show, he replayed an interview of Nate Parker discussing his movie “Birth of a Nation,” which focuses on the liberation efforts of Nat Turner. Parker stated how he had not learned of Turner during his early years of education and what he did know was skewed. It appeared that many of the persons who interacted with the broadcast via messaging were in a similar situation and that this movie was the first time many had ever heard of Nat Turner.
What then are we to make of other lesser known rebellions that occurred during the period of chattel enslavement of Africans in the Americas?
Another example of how our history is devalued occurred when I looked up the term African diaspora, which resulted from the brutal capture and transportation or kidnapping of millions of Africans from their homelands, often referred to as the MAAFA or the Middle Passage. The definition for African diaspora I found online was “the historical movement.” Saying African diaspora is a “historical movement” sounds like people just got up and left, leaving out the force and horror of what occurred. The problem of white supremacy in our culture will not go away with less history; it will only be abated by more accurate American history being taught. There is a concerted and sustained effort to whitewash American history in our schools. Several popular instances have made the news where the textbooks in some states have removed references to the KKK, Jim Crow, chattel enslavement and racism.
Without a Black History Month that re-engages the community to refocus on the accomplishments and the pathos of the Black struggle for survival, the history of black people will be white-washed into joyful images and a narrative of migrant workers and historical movements, none of which will serve as core-building or strength-building memories that will help Black people forge out a liberating future of self-empowerment and agency.
Without the coming together to celebrate and then expand that celebration to year-long reminders of Black struggle and achievement, our future will be bleak. Case in point, recently the famous Dr. Kenneth Clark studies were re-conducted and the results were the same; black children viewed the black dolls which look like them as negative while viewing the white dolls as positive.
Black history month is a line in the sand against the complete annihilation of black contributions as a significant part of World and American history. Black history must be woven into the full fabric of World and American history. Black History month as resistance must be infused with power and not apathy and rote remembrances. Black History exemplifies that the progression of an idea, no matter how small, can grow into a significant reality. Black History Month operates on many levels as it reminds us of our story of triumph against all odds. It further reminds us, because there are those who minimized and trivialized it, that we need to remain in the struggle for full inclusion and equality.
That as the Nat Turners fought against oppression we must be reminded that we are part of the same continuum of resistance to negation that started with the first cry of a captured soul on the soil of our motherland. Black history is significant because it is the story of a significant people who have refused to be rendered invisible and silent.
Rev. Ron Bonner, is the husband of Rev. Dr. Rosetta Ross, the father of two sons, and the grandfather of five. He has a background in the business world serving as a Marketing Executive for I.B.M. and a National Account Data Sales Executive for AT&T. Ron is a graduate of the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle and Chicago Theological Seminary.
Ron has served the United Church of Christ as the Assistant to the President for Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity and has served the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as the Manager for Multicultural Resources at Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Ron currently serves as the pastor of The Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Atlanta, Georgia. He has also recently published a book titled: No Bigotry Allowed: Losing the Spirit of Fear. He is also a Board Director and Chaplain of Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta and a keynote speaker on Issues of Hunger and Race.
Pastor Bonner believes that: The necessity for religious institutions to engage in public policy issues is an imperative mandated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Website for Rev. Bonner’s congregation, The Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Atlanta, Georgia.
The free, full text in PDF format of Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro.
An article on the “Buffalo Soldiers” – the name given to all African-American regiments fighting against Indian insurgents during the 1860’s in the United States.
The free, full PDF text of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – one of the great slave narratives of the 19th century United States.