February is the first full month of the Trump administration, and Black History Month may be as important as it’s ever been.
At minimum, it’s a needed annual reminder that the citizens of these United States, from their origin down to today, have not lived up to the professed vision of “liberty and justice for all.” Even more, as Christians, it’s a chance to celebrate the creative brilliance of the God who “made from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26), and the redemptive beauty of his Son who, with his own blood, “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
“February is the first full month of the Trump administration, and Black History Month may be as important as ever.”
And in 2017, we welcome Black History Month all the more, when racial tensions nationwide may be at a generational high, in the wake of the Ferguson unrest, viral videos of police brutality (or innocent officers being shot and killed), and a racially charged election cycle. Campaign 2016 repeatedly pushed racial buttons, not only for Mexicans and Muslims, but African Americans. And observances such as Black History Month, even though they can’t do all the work on their own, have a role to play in our healing as a nation.
Into our racially charged environment, as we stumble forward to see if we will find any balance as we learn to walk under this president, Black History Month meets a need, and presents an opportunity not just for Americans, but followers of Christ.
Why and How It Started
Carter Woodson (1875–1950), son of former slaves and one of the first scholars to study African-American history, planted the seeds that grew into Negro History Week in February 1926 and then Black History Month fifty years later. Woodson, known today as “the father of black history,” had noticed in his graduate and doctoral studies “that the role of African Americans in American history was either misrepresented or missing altogether from the history books.”
Woodson chose the second week in February, to coincide with the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 20). It was President Gerald Ford who first recognized Black History Month in 1976 during the nation’s bicentennial year; every president since has done the same. Ford’s original charter was a call for Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Black History for Christians
In the forty years since, support for naming February “Black History Month” has waxed and waned. It has, at times, been controversial. Morgan Freeman, for instance, registered his opinion on 60 Minutes that it was “ridiculous,” saying, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” Other minority groups in America have asked, “When’s our history month?” (Native American Heritage Month is November; Asian Heritage, March 15 to April 15; Hispanic Heritage, September 15 to October 15.)
As a white Christian in America, I have wrestled with what it means to orient on Black History Month. I remember well my unsympathetic heart as a teenager growing up in the South — not only uninformed, but unrighteous — leading me to roll my eyes and say, “So, when’s White History Month?” Such is not the spirit of Christ, nor is it walking by his Spirit to suspect the worst of non-blacks who rush to join the annual celebration. Nor is it Christian — not in this nation or any other place on the planet — to keep silent with our children about the realities of ethnicity in view of Christ. If we don’t cast a positive vision for our children about the glories of God-designed ethnic diversity, we leave their inherent ethnocentrism to swell and take root.
“No American can ignore that the plight of the African American has been uniquely difficult in this nation.”
Rather, as Christians, we can rehearse the many reasons why we love ethnic diversity. And where the grand, theological, and global theory meets practice is in the particular locality in which God has placed us. God not only “made from one man every nation of mankind,” but he also “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). For most of us in the United States, the Christian journey to loving all peoples will eventually take on countless shades and textures, but it typically begins very Black and White.
In this country, whites of all stripes, and non-white alike, cannot ignore that the plight of the African American has been uniquely difficult in this nation. This is in no way to minimize the unique pains and terrors of Native Americans or other groups, and even some fellow “whites” who were mistreated because of their distinct origin. But it is to acknowledge that, for generations, the nation in which we live was built on and profited from a wicked system of God-dishonoring human abuse called chattel slavery — and that it is simply inevitable that we continue to deal with the structural effects of such sin and evil. Our fathers ate the sour grapes, and unless we bury our heads in the ground, there is no getting around it that our teeth indeed have been set on edge (Ezekiel 18:2).
Black History Month isn’t simply about ethnic diversity in general, but remembering the horrors of our shared history and celebrating the progress that has been made, in God’s common kindness, and specifically the many successes of black Americans despite such a history. Christians honor this month, at least in part, because it helps us understand the awful plight of a people made in God’s image, many of them fellow believers, and acknowledges God’s goodness at work in remarkable achievements (like the presidency) in and through a people who often have been treated with utter wickedness.
Beauty of Ethnic Diversity
And for Christians, the specific stories of pain and triumph in black history ripen as our roots grow deeper into biblical thought, and into the mind of Christ, and we mature in appreciating the beauty of various ethnicities and ethnic harmony. We rally to the vision of Psalm 96:3–4:
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.
Why do we marvel, in earshot of diverse peoples, about the glory of our God? Because he is great enough not only to have our praise, but theirs as well. “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praise.” The shared praises of diverse and unified peoples are a tribute to God’s greatness. He is too great not to win worshipers from every tribe and people and nation. When we notice (not neglect), and when we love (not despise), the ethnic diversity God created, we unite our hearts with his mission in the world: to magnify the worth and beauty of his Son in the harmonious praise of diverse peoples.
“A Christian celebration of ethnic diversity is a frontal attack on the dragon of human pride.”
And in exalting the glory of God, we undercut the power of sin. A Christian celebration of ethnic diversity is a frontal attack on the dragon of human pride. No ground at the foot of the cross is raised above another, no slightly higher hill assigned to certain ethnicities. God first levels our pride in the equality of our creation (Acts 17:26), then Christ packs the ground tight in the equality of our redemption (Galatians 3:28). Here is neither black nor white, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ. Such specific verses and truths are what lodge in a soul when “the gospel” goes to work on racism. That is my story and song as a South-Carolinian-become-Christian.
For White People Too
If you’re white — or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or all of the above — thank God for his brilliance and breadth in creating diverse peoples. And let’s cast the vision for our children again and again. It is a beautiful thing that God made so many types of divine-image-reflecting humans as the pinnacle of his creation. Black is beautiful, and particularly so with Spirit-opened eyes against the backdrop of horrors in this nation’s history. One month a year is not too long for reminding ourselves of it and celebrating it.
Consider President Ford’s original charter: “to seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans.” For starters, watch the two-minute overview video from History Channel. How about black history in the American church? Consider reading about Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833), Daniel Payne (1811–1893), and Francis Grimké (1850–1937) in Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors, or learning from John Piper on the life of Clarence Thomas and on how Martin Luther King, Jr changed his life. (Perhaps dip into Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, available free of charge in three digital formats, or listen to his message on “The Sovereignty of God and the Soul Dynamic.”)
Simply put, if you love Jesus Christ, and hate human pride and its rebellion against his kingship, you will want to grow in appreciating God’s good gift of ethnic diversity, and specifically this manifestation of it in our nation. Black History Month is not for them. It’s for all of us.