Black History: Who Needs It?

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by Freeman Miller

We all do, unfortunately. In a perfect world, no ethnic group would need to be singled out for special consideration in the writing of our history books. But we have not always been fair-minded or even-handed in recording the great achievements of peoples. As any history major knows, even the most objective historian will inevitably filter events through the perspectives shaped by his or her particular culture.

Since so much of American history has been recorded (not to mention controlled) by European Americans, and therefore shaded by cultural biases and nuances, much noteworthy material from the African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, and Latino cultures has been completely overlooked or suppressed in many of our school textbooks, even at the college level. No wonder, then, that there is a strong push for a revisionist rewriting of our history texts. But that raises another thorny issue: Who will rewrite them and from what cultural biases? Will those biases then distort those rewritten histories in another direction? If so, will there ever come a time when all the history textbooks written in our country will be fair-minded, inclusive, and balanced?

In this new millennium (in which, for the first time in recorded history, over half of the world's populations now reside in cities that are multi-ethnic and international), these are weighty questions worthy of serious scholarly consideration, especially among Christian scholars. For the Bible states categorically, "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (I John 4:20). We cannot love those we don't understand except perhaps in the generic sense; but as the old adage says, "I love humanity – it's people I can't stand!"

As Christ's incarnation demonstrates, true love enters deeply into the culture of the beloved to the point of being ready to lay down one's life for then other. This is a serious challenge, a high and holy calling. It behooves us as a community of scholars and learners to be diligent in our commitments to understand each other fully.

For me, as a European American living in North Philadelphia, this has turned into a life-long journey of discovery. I believe that Black History Month is needed as a short-term corrective to our distorted histories. I hope that eventually black history will be woven into a seamless tapestry that includes all cultures and ethnicities. There are many other reasons why African Americans deserve special recognition not only in February but every day of the year. I will not pursue those reasons further at this point. Rather, let me mention a few suggestions for those of us who are European Americans to ponder during this month of 2004.

For those wanting the full dose of African American history – from the ancient empires in Africa through slavery days to the present – the classic by Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower (Penguin, 1993), remains unsurpassed. Abraham Chapman's Black Voices (Signet, 1986) is a well-rounded anthology of black literature that helps us enter into the pathos of the black experience. For those ready to seriously explore the concept of white privilege, Enter the River (Herald Press, 1994), by Tobin Miller Shearer, is a good introduction from an Anabaptist perspective (and ties in excellently with the Damascus Road Anti-Racism training program designed by Shearer). The book and the training are very helpful in understanding institutional racism, in which all of us are trapped whether we like it or not.

The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation (Zondervan, 1993) by Pannell, Perkins, and Kesler is a wake-up call for all Christians. My neighbors and sons-in-law also teach me much that is valuable in current black history, as do such recent books as The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (Riverhead Books, 1997). Nothing helps enter into another culture as deeply as hearing the stories and heart-cries of persons in that culture. As Vincent Harding has long claimed, unless we share personal histories we will not be likely to share much else. (Harding's Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero [Orbis Books, 1996] and There is a River [Harvest Books, 1993] are also unflinching scholarly probes into the agony and ecstasy of African Americans.)

Reading books like these will help us avoid such deeply naive questions as, "What do they want?" and more innocent but short-sighted comments as, "Some of my best friends are black." I close with a contemporary illustration of noble black history, drawn from In the inhospitable culture of Hollywood, movie star Denzel Washington has made his marriage work for over 20 years. Besides being active in his church, he gives a lot of credit to his wife, Paulette: "It's the little things my wife does every day, because the little things are the hard things, and they make you know someone is there. She's up every day, making breakfast for the kids, and taking them to school. She makes every lunch, every dinner. She's consistent and solid and full of discipline and dedication. I know that sounds corny, but I'm amazed by that."

Freeman Miller is bishop of the Philadelphia District of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, overseeing 12 churches in the city and 6 outside the city, as well as 2 in Hawaii. He is also adjunct instructor in urban studies at Messiah College, Philadelphia Campus.

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