We have a Black History Month because our conveniently faulty memories explain away the constant verbal degradation a Black person had to endure – and still has to endure. We ignore the statistically questionable system rigged against Black people that sees disproportionate numbers affected in the criminal justice, mental health, housing and social care systems. We gloss over the government complicity and the lack of recourse to justice. We have a Black History Month because it is too easy – and too convenient – for us to forget, so it was right for 2018 to celebrate 70 years of the Windrush generation’s contributions.
Yet our annual observance of Black History Month (BHM) still brings a chorus of ‘Why?’ from both the innocently uninformed person and the malicious racists, often citing it’s time to ‘move on from the images of Europe’s colonial history’. But, let us be clear, we still have Black History Month because today’s society has a short memory when it comes to the wrongdoing against people of African descent. The collective ‘we’ vaguely remember the millions enslaved, and at times it feels like we forget the horror they experienced. We also forget the shock of being labelled property and all that comes with that. We forget the murders, the rapes, the forced labour, the beatings and the destroyed families.
We forget that, once freed from slavery, every road to prosperity, every way to the pursuit of happiness was strewn with barricades of hate, injustice and violence. We forget that laws were written and enforced up into the 1960s that specifically singled out Black people for discriminatory treatment. We forget that the system built to serve the White majority has been left in place with few modifications,, and that the success of the White majority in the system they built has been used to suggest there is some moral or intellectual failure on the part of Black people.
If we don’t continue to write our story, then we leave it to others to tell our story – Lest we forget!
I have no problem with using BHM to point to Black men and women who succeeded, to those who became standouts in science, medicine, law, education, industry, sports, business, music and other arts. But again, let us be clear, their success is not that borne of a level field or a fair system. Their success is that of extraordinary people, who pounded on the weaknesses and slipped through the few pores in the barricades that kept generations from their dreams. Their success required from them a strength and a determination that few of us possess.
So, what has this got to do with the Church or Christian faith? Well, to put this in a religious context, overcoming the divisions of race has been central to the Church since its beginning, and the dynamic diversity of the body of Christ is one of the most powerful forces in the global Church. In reclaiming a gospel message, we learnt Christianity stands fundamentally opposed to racism in all its forms. The ultimate answer to the question of race is found in our identity as children of God, which applies to all of us, no matter our colour or creed. Can it be that the political and economic problems of race are ultimately rooted in a theological problem, if churches perpetuate the racial divisions, instead of understanding how our authentic baptism unites us above and beyond our racial identities?
I think the Church has a big role to play in racial healing. If we say we belong to Christ, that mission of reconciliation is ours too. Britain sits as one of the most racially diverse nations in the world. This diversity is essential to our identity as Black Britons (both Caribbean or African), but it has also given us a history of tension and conflict. In Luke 4:18-21, Jesus Himself says that the Good News to the liberation of the oppressed has been accomplished with the advent of His ministry: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Yet, long after Christ’s crucifixion, injustices still persist, and oppression reigns over humanity, causing me to reflect just how much can humankind redeem of itself? Much of the Good News Christ proclaims is found within the good seeds sown into ordinary people’s lives. For Him, ordinary people included all racial groups, women, and those without power or influence of the masses. His charge was to plant the seeds of God’s Kingdom of liberation, and Jesus held to His principles without wavering, secure in the knowledge of bearing witness to truth and justice, and love for God and neighbour was the only lasting way to establish God’s Kingdom on earth as in Heaven. So, if Jesus’ imagery of the Kingdom of God is seeds being sown, He further makes the point through the imagery of yeast as a multiplier which, when you introduce even in the smallest measure, you can leaven bread or, in our case, our witness to power can change our society and our world.
My point is this: more churches need to speak to audiences outside the Sunday morning session, speaking out to local and national communities, speaking out to governments and institutions by sowing seeds of racial harmony, particularly in a hostile Brexit and anti-immigration environment.
Peace and resolution cannot happen when we ignore, deny or suppress our racial history and journey. It can occur only when we talk about it, engage it, embrace it, and be ready to be transformed by it.