Meditation on Black History Month
Vanderbilt Divinity School Community Worship
February 1, 2012
It is Black History Month again. And we have gathered once again to remember; but to remember what? Beginnings and transitions. Not so much the beginnings of an official declaration in 1976 when then-President Gerald Ford officially made February a national month of remembrance and celebration. In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson declared the first week in February "Negro History Week" to coincide with the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In so doing, Woodson and others called attention to a moment of remembrance, to remember the cultural, industrial and spiritual achievements of Negros and their contribution to the history of the United States.
In 1976, Ford would recognize this month as a national occasion for remembrance, saying that we must "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected achievements of black Americans in every area of achievement toward our nation." But what are we to remember? Why dedicate a month to remembering black people and their achievements? What of their struggles, their hopes and the future of their race?
Such celebrations are marked by duplicity. It is duplicity of consciousness between beginnings and transitions and between forgetfulness and the need for and of community; and along the way we, perhaps, will have forgotten more than will ever be remembered. This is our fate. But it is not the fate of a single people. Rather, such forgetfulness is a human reality from which crises of transitions lead us into new beginnings and new moments of remembrance. Forgetfulness accompanies our everyday existence and realties. In the forgetfulness of the everyday, there is little time for remembrance, being preoccupied with stuff, business as usual, and for some we are preoccupied and consumed by an existence mediated by pervasive black on black crime, mass incarceration of black people and other people of color, especially black males between the ages of 15-24; HIV/AIDS, Drugs infestation, and the like. These realities come to define for many, in this moment of forgetfulness, the sense of "community."
It is a sense of community in which the dominate culture continues to see black women as breeders of a welfare culture, and black men as prime suspects of rape, drugs, and death. Within this moment of forgetfulness, just a few years ago, when many of us celebrated the election of the first black president, now sour , cynicism prevailed as this cultural, historical achievement, only dreamed of by founder of Black History Week, is today battered by shameful attacks on his administration. Cynics compared his very short beginning to the incompetence of a cruise ship captain thrown overboard into a lifeboat while the ship limps over into the death-dealing waters. So during Black History Month, what is at stake in this moment of beginnings, forgetfulness and transitions? Howard Thurman described it as a search for common ground, the search for community, but more importantly search for beloved community. Here is Thurman:
The search for community on the part of the Afro-American minority within the larger American community reveals still another fact of the inside-outside dilemma (signified by what Du Bois called a twoness, a double consciousness, two strivings, to be black and American). Unlike the American Indian, says Thurman, the African slave was uprooted from his land, his territory, and brought forcibly several thousand miles to another land completely alien to his spirit and his gods. All ties that gave him a sense of belonging, of counting, of being a person nourished by community of persons were abruptly severed, lacerated, torn asunder. ... In terms of his access to the source human being ... He was a part of the land, the territory; he was part of the ground of community, the land by which the slave owner sought to realize his on potential in community.
Black History Month is a moment for remembering beginnings, remembering times of forgetfulness and remembering transitions that circulate throughout our need of and search for community, which is celebrated by James Weldon Johnson's verse:
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers died?
So we have come to that place today, this morning, to break the weight of forgetfulness so determinate of our present. We find connections to this stony road, not as blacks alone, but as Thurman says—this stony road is riddled by violence, greed, persecution, homelessness, wanderings and slavocracy. Yet, in our need of and search for community, we have not forgotten the
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; thou who hast by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Even as we are engaged this month in moments of remembrance, remembering beginnings, achievements, hopes, struggles, victories, defeats, setbacks, and failures among ourselves as a political community and among the community of nations, we also participate in another remembrance. It is a remembrance that calls and joins all of here together into a spiritual community. For its beginnings are deeply rooted in the monumental story of a people's rise from slavery to freedom, from servitude to beloved community. I am not so much evoking that archaic beginning of a logos denigration of his personhood and triune fraternity to make his place among us. It is the begging of one who came into into this horizon of human communities and found himself rejected, whose outrageous solitude robbed him of every luxury that conformity to conformity brings. This was his beginning. His was a beginning that starts in a barn and whose impossible mission pitted him against fathers and mother, sisters and brothers, and located him among a ragtag cohort of undesirables. And all of this was for that sake of beloved community.
His beginning was our beginning, the beginnings of a community that preaches an unwelcomed gospel of a peaceable kingdom in a society driven by violence, a violence that would lead not only him but millions after him to lynching trees. But not even the impending threat of nothingness or violence or death could kill in him and in the community he called disciples the need of and for beloved community. But in that great moment, when Jesus is about to transition, as the old folk use to say, what would sustain the power of this calling toward beloved community? How would it endure as the identity marker of his spiritual community? Make it a commandment! "Love one another as I have loved you." I don't know about you, but I could hardly join a community whose sole motive for community is based on an imperative. Is beloved community to be found in a commandment? As a descendant of slaves, I will not be anybody's slave or servant, not even if Jesus himself commanded it. Hardly a beloved relationship.
No! In this moment, in this beginning, I am glad that Jesus also created a new possibility for beloved community, and he gave this called community a new identity and a new relationship not only to him but an enduring relation to the beloved community. He said, "I no longer call you servants. I call you friends."
If you follow me, do it because you love me as a friend; if you suffer, do so not because it is commanded, but let it be the cost of friendship; if you find yourself despised and scorned and ridiculed, let it be the price of friendship with me; when you are persecuted, taken from your homes, tortured for the sake of beloved community, let it be the consequence of your friendship with me; and although I am going to leave you, keep this precept alive in the community of faith—love one another as I have loved you—not because I have commanded it, but because you are my friends.
So today, my dear friends, we celebrate Black History Month within this spiritual community. And we do not do this out of slavish loyalty to the past achievements of blacks in culture, enterprise and spirituality. Rather, as we remember our past beginnings and transitions, we greet every beginning and transition with the excitement, longing and affection of being with and seeing again dear friends. We remember:
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee, shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.