Rev. Jason Chesnut – an ELCA pastor living and working in Baltimore, Maryland – has been at the vanguard of activist clergy in the US. For months he has been active and vocal in his support of grass-roots protests and activism on behalf of marginalized communities in Baltimore, and has the bumps to prove it. So when he answers this simple question – “Why should white people care about Black History?” – the reply is terse, rich, and full of thought. Read and share and enjoy, friends.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
It is now entirely commonplace to hear the same, tired response at this time of the year: “Well…what about a white history month?”
Every time I hear this, I inevitably think of the parent’s conversation with her child, after the question, “Momma, why do you get to celebrate Mother’s Day, but there’s no ‘Kid’s Day’?” Her response: “Honey, every day is ‘Kid’s Day.'”
The sad truth is, every month is White History Month.
From the particular whitewashed history of the American Revolution to a recent Texas textbook referring to Africans kidnapped into slavery as “workers,” when it comes to history, we have been fed thoroughly (and almost exclusively) history from a white perspective.
Unfortunately, we rarely face up to this reality. In a country that elected its first black president in 2008, there has been a growing sense of labeling the United States as “post-racial,” and a specific need to quietly sweep any untoward history under the proverbial rug.
It makes sense – this makes us feel better as a nation. Well, it makes some of us feel better. “We don’t need black history, we have American history,” the thinking goes. “Why do they call themselves African American, anyway? We’re all just American.”
And yet, this sentiment tends to be reserved for white people – many of whom (this author included) come from European immigrants who, slowly but surely, were invited to blend into the white designation of Americans from the late 19th-century through the early 20th. (This subtle-yet-official invitation has never been extended to those who are black.)
Within this line of thinking is the lie that white is normal, ordinary, the regular way of being. Thus, we don’t say we learn white history in this country – we simply learn history. Or, in the words of this Georgia Tech student:
Traveling through South Africa last month, I was reminded that the ghost of apartheid lies in plain sight. Even for those who would rather forget this unique scourge on South African history, there’s no question that it existed. This barbaric legislative and cultural system of “apart-ness” was. It is their history, like it or not.
In the United States, this kind of honesty when it comes to race relations is a rare commodity.
We are a country without a single museum dedicated to the sadistic generations-long policy known collectively as Jim Crow; we have but one place (the Whitney Plantation, an hour west of New Orleans) dedicated to exposing the history of slavery; our elected representatives have repeatedly rejected even the opportunity to consider reparations for those affected by the epic transatlantic slave trade that eventually made the United States the wealthiest country in the history of history.
We continue to peddle the falsehood that America is a “melting pot.” We convince ourselves that our incredibly broken justice system is indeed “colorblind,” even though our jails and prisons are overflowing with black and brown bodies. One is reminded of the modern-day prophet Langston Hughes:
Because of this, the festering eyes that have long since left Lady Justice must be reclaimed and recovered – this is one of the most important aspects of Black History Month.
“This is why I speak to the crowds in parables,” Jesus tells his disciples, “because although they see, they don’t really see…” (Matthew 13:13) The same charge could easily have been applied to the disciples themselves, although Jesus lets them off the hook for the moment.
How often we have done the same within the history of these United States – seeing, for instance, the Southern politics surrounding the ending of the Civil War, while not really seeing the domestic white terrorism that led to the expulsion of Union troops in 1877, and what that meant in the lives of newly-freed black people who had once been considered nothing more than property.
Jesus himself was quite clear on what we needed to see.
Every Christian does well to understand that we must pick our interpret lens when it comes to the Bible – just as Jesus did, since he knew that it made no sense to give the same weight to every single verse.
According to Luke’s Gospel, when he came home to Nazareth and stood up to read at the synagogue, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he chose to focus on some of the most radical verses in the entire Hebrew Bible:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This was the lens through which Jesus chose to define his public ministry. His sermon which follows lays out what this “liberation to the oppressed” looks like. And it’s not a colorblind, #AllLivesMatter sort of sermon. Jesus names that God’s justice is particularly interested in those who are on the margins – in those who do not occupy the centers of power and prestige.
What does occupy that center in the United States is whiteness. This country was founded upon the principle that rich, white men with property were the only ones who mattered. (This, of course, has broadened somewhat in the 240 years since the Declaration of Independence was adopted, but the point remains: the very history of this country is centered in what it means to be “white.”)
For those of us who follow Jesus and are white, it’s our difficult responsibility to recognize that although Jesus preaches good news to everyone, it might not always sound good.
But just because it might be uncomfortable does not let us off the hook from engaging with it. In the same way that we must recognize the bias God has towards those who have been cast aside, we must be committed to recovering the history of those who have too often been marginalized and made invisible in this country.
This is why not only white people are called to celebrate Black History Month (instead of merely tolerating it) – it is also why white Christians are called to celebrate it, as well.
It’s high time those of us who are white and claim the identity of Christian start naming the brutal truth that ignoring Black History Month is nothing less than ignoring a part of God’s own creation. It’s a dedicated refusal to see the systematic degradation of black history within our national “colorblindness.”
Black History Month is nothing less than a collection of modern-day psalms, crying out to God with all the hopes, fears, dreams, and frustrations – all the accumulated sorrow and praise – that is the African American experience in our country.
Because when we white people refuse to read and point to these psalms, we are refusing to join Jesus on his radical journey.
Worried about talking about race? Don’t worry too much – it is good for you.
Saturday Night Live’s comedic response to white fragile response to the video.
Originally hailing from Texas, Rev. Jason Chesnut is, in the words of his Twitter bio at @CrazyPastor, a Jesus-follower, anti-racist, feminist, aspiring theologian, ordained in the @ELCA, and works at @TheSlateProject – an ecumenical Christian community in Baltimore, Maryland.