Friday, February 22, 2008

Random thoughts on race (from February 2007)

I’ve been so busy or preoccupied that I haven’t had time to write. Nevertheless, I didn’t want February—Black History Month—to get away without posting something about Black American culture. I wrote the following reflections a year ago (here and here) and I felt they were worth re-posting, with only slight re-editing.

Just so no one will misunderstand: I did not write these reflections with even the slightest feeling of malice. As far as I know my heart, I love everybody, of whatever race or culture. I also love Black people. I’m Black, and not ashamed of the fact. I was raised by Black people in a Black neighborhood. We attended a Black church. I received Christ and was nurtured in the Christian faith within the context of my Black family. I thank God for my cultural heritage; I don’t run away from it.

So, with gratitude to God, and in honor of Black History Month, I offer these personal reflections on race, from my own personal perspective as a Black man.

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How often do you think about your race? I’m not absolutely sure, but I think that, at least since college, in one way or another, I probably think about my race nearly every day, if only for a moment. In one way or another, daily, I’m reminded that I am Black. To me, this is not a negative thing; it’s just the way it is. Living in a race-conscious society has a way of making one race-conscious, especially if your race is generally viewed negatively by that society.

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Pa Bill and Grandma (my great grandparents) had “good hair.” For the uninitiated, “good hair” is hair that blows in the wind, hair that can be moved and styled with a fine-toothed comb. In other words, “good” hair was hair that was close or similar in texture to White people’s hair. As far as I can tell, Black people have always judged themselves in relation to White people. The straighter the hair and the lighter the skin, the better you were. Of course, you know, that’s just how Whites judged Blacks. Blacks, as a race, simply adopted the value system of their oppressors.

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My great-great grandmother, “Grandma Duncan”, was a very fair-skinned Black woman. Her mother was a “Mulatto”—the daughter of the White slave master by his Black slave (hence my great grandma’s “good” hair). I never had a chance to know Grandma Duncan, as she died in 1946. However, I did know Grandpa Duncan’s second wife, “Miss” Colona. Colona Duncan was also a very fair-skinned Black woman. She died a year before Grandpa Duncan. I’m told Grandpa Duncan didn’t want to marry “no dark-skinned woman”. Ironically, Grandpa Duncan was dark-skinned. Now, what was his rejection of dark-skinned Black women, but a form of self-hatred? You must understand, however, that this is what societal racism does to a person’s self-image. It almost makes one want to weep for the damage that has been done to Black people in America.

By the way, my wife happens to be fair-skinned (and, yes, she has “good” hair, also).

I think Grandpa Duncan would have been pleased.

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I’ve been called a “Nigger”, in my hearing, five times in my life: once in 5th grade (by a “Navy brat”, a child whose parent was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base; not a native North Chicagoan); once in 7th grade (by another “Navy brat”); at a summer music camp, when I was almost 14; by one of my (short-lived) college roommates, as he grabbed me by the collar and shoved me against the wall; and, many years ago when I taught in a middle school, by a student in a crowded cafeteria. With such a crowd, I couldn’t identify who said it, although I know it was directed at me since I was the only Black person in the entire school building (and the only Black adult that I ever saw in the entire school district!). My experiences have taught me that “Nigger” is the weapon-of-choice for weak, cowardly, White people. When they can’t think of anything legitimate or intelligent to say, they always reach back for that word.

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“Nigger” is used by Black people, too. My great grandparents used the word not infrequently, when referring to certain “choice” Black people. And, I’ll tell you right now, it was never meant as a compliment. However, my wife (who is also public high school teacher) informs me that some young Black people now throw around the word almost as a term of endearment, thereby encouraging a few White youngsters to use the word, also…and not just in reference to Black people! I can only shake my head in disbelief. It reminds me of that stupid question I’ve heard an occasional White person ask: “Why is it all right for Black people to say ‘Nigger’ and not White people?” I always feel like asking, “Why are you worried about it? Do you want to use the word? And why would you want to use it?”

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Don’t refer to sin as “black”. Sin is not black. The Bible says, “Though your sins are like scarlet…though they are red like crimson” (Isaiah 1:18). Sin is not black; sin is red.

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I don’t want any pictures of Jesus. I don’t even picture Jesus in my mind when I pray. Any picture that I, or anyone else, would come up with would be inaccurate, and unworthy of the Savior. One thing I do know: Jesus wasn’t blond-haired and blue-eyed! Most everything in our society says that White is better, prettier, more handsome, etc. The last thing Black people need is some picture telling them that even Jesus was a European!

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Two Scripture passages every Black child ought to know and memorize (and, of course, there are thousands more):

Psalm 139:14a“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Because every Black child needs to know that they are a beautiful creation of God.

Romans 8:31b“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Because every Black child needs to know that if they stay on God’s side, it won’t matter who hates you.

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King David wrote (recorded in Psalms 14:1 and 53:1), “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” My personal definition of a fool: A Black atheist. Let me explain:

Black people were legally held as slaves in the Southern United States until 1865. I am convinced that slavery was, ultimately, not ended by the Civil War, or the Emancipation Proclamation, or the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and certainly not by President Abraham Lincoln. Slavery in the U.S. was ended by God. God moved in answer to the prayers of countless Black slaves over the 200+ years Blacks were held in bondage in the U.S. I have no confidence in the supposed goodwill of sinful human beings. White people would not have willingly let Black people go free. Apart from the sovereign hand of God, Black people would still be enslaved today.

This is why Black people ought to believe in God. He’s the best Friend, Advocate, Defender, Deliverer, and Savior Black people ever had. And, I’m not talking about the Muslim’s Allah. If I remember my history correctly, it was Muslims who delivered their fellow Africans over to Europeans in order to enslave them. Allah put Black folks in bondage! No, no, no! It was the triune God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—the only true God—who set Black people free.

A Black person who doesn’t believe in this God is, therefore, a “double” fool—a fool because God says you are (Psalms 14 and 53), and a fool because you don’t have enough sense to realize to Whom you owe your freedom.

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Is it possible to embrace evangelicalism and Reformed Christianity and still maintain one’s identity as a Black person? I think it’s possible, but not without purposeful effort. Evangelical pressure to assimilate is strong. The models presented in most books, workshops and seminaries are culturally White. The standard held up as ideal is culturally White. Think about the personalities (pastors and authors and schools) that represent the movement. Think about the churches. Think about the music. Think about the worship styles. It all comes across as very “White”. Just read the blogs! Most of these writers can’t relate to the average, working class, Black person.

I embrace Reformed/Calvinistic theology because I believe it’s biblical and true, but it will never sell in the Black community wrapped in White culture. If a Black person uncritically adopts all that currently comprises Reformed evangelicalism, he or she runs the risk of being no longer able to relate to and communicate with Black people. It is a blessing that there are some Black preachers out there who are trying to propagate Reformed theology among Black people. But, I think we could be so much more effective if we could also mix that biblical theology with some Black culture.

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The most forgiving people I’ve ever heard about were Black people.

For example, my great-great-great grandmother, Malinda Duncan, was a slave in Alabama, owned by the Armistead family. Malinda died in 1929, at the age of 86, and I’ve visited her grave, down South in the Armistead Cemetery (land set aside by the Armistead family for their slaves to bury their dead). Grandma (my great grandmother) told me that Malinda, who was her paternal grandmother, would tell her about the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her “mistress”, Mrs. Armistead. It appears Mr. Armistead was prone to fooling around with his female slaves (which, obviously, was very common—just look at how many shades of color “Black” people come in). Mrs. Armistead, as a result, was very jealous and spiteful toward her female slaves. Well, one day Mrs. Armistead got a hold of my great-great-great grandmother (who was only a girl at the time), and burned her against the side of her neck with a poker taken from the fireplace. Grandma personally saw this scar. Grandma said when she was a little girl she used to cry as her grandmother would tell her about how the mistress burned her neck. After the slaves were free, and Mrs. Armistead was old, widowed and sick, and near death, Malinda went back and took care of her mistress (I assume until the old lady died).

The words of Scripture come to mind (Proverbs 25:21-22):

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.

Can’t you also hear the words of Jesus? (Matthew 5:43-45):

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I ask you, would your Christianity enable you to do what my great-great-great grandmother, Malinda, did?

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Speaking of the old Black folks and church: The old folks believed that if you were going to “have church” you ought to really “have church”. They weren’t casual about their worship. God had been too good to them to keep it bottled up inside. Church was the place to let it all out! An old gospel song they used to love to sing at my home church went like this:

I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody…
I said I wasn’t gonna run for Jesus…
I said I wasn’t gonna shout for joy, but I
Couldn’t keep it to myself

What the Lord has done for me.

Then, there was the refrain:

You oughta been there
When He saved my soul.
You oughta been there
When He put my name on the role.

Then I started walking,
I started talking,
I started singing,
I started shouting
About what the Lord has done for me.

When you think about the hardships, the heartaches, the pain…I believe contemporary folks would go insane under similar life pressures! It was unheard of, back in the day, for a Black person to go to a counselor or psychologist. So, how did they mentally and emotionally survive? They survived because the Lord was their psychologist and counselor and psychiatrist! They shouted and hollered, prayed and cried, walked and ran, and sang and moaned, until they felt better! They could go on for another week, facing racism and poverty and discrimination and deprivation every day of their lives, yet persevering in spite of their circumstances, because they had a friend in Jesus. It’s no secret that Black folks’ favorite verse in “Amazing Grace” has always been verse number three:

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Twas grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

This reminds me of the last time my great-great grandfather, Richmond Duncan, attended church. When he was about to turn 100 years of age, the very day before his birthday, our church had a celebration for him during the Sunday worship service. That was Sunday, August 1, 1971. I have only a few memories from that day (I was only 8), but they still stand out vividly in my mind.

Grandpa Duncan was old and feeble by this time and was no longer able to attend church. Since he wasn’t able to sit through an hour-and-a-half to two-hour service, it was decided that the family would bring him to church at noon—half-way through the service. I remember the ushers escorting Grandpa Duncan into the church. On his way down the center aisle to the front pew where the family was seated, Grandpa Duncan saw an old friend, Mr. Charlie Ingram. Mr. Ingram was no longer able to attend church either, as he was about 96-years-old at this time, and blind and feeble; but he wanted to come and help celebrate his old friend’s birthday. Grandpa Duncan saw Mr. Ingram and the two old friends embraced right there in the center aisle and greeted each other warmly, striking up a conversation!

I also remember Grandpa Duncan partaking of communion that day. In Methodism, we knelt at the altar rail to take communion, and so, Grandpa Duncan was helped to his knees. Well, Grandpa Duncan “got happy” down there on his knees, as he cried out and rejoiced in the Lord. The old man couldn’t hold it any longer. I can only imagine what was on his mind:

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word, my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...
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annakristine said...

Hi, I came over from Between Two Worlds. I was just wondering where you got the code for the ESV link in your sidebar. I'd like to put it on my page as well. :)

Great blog, btw.

wwdunc said...

Where did I get the code for the ESV link in my sidebar? That’s a good question! I couldn’t remember or find the source right away, but I finally stumbled upon it. You can get the code at the ESV.org website. The address is http://www.esv.org/churches/button.

Thanks for stopping by!