There appears to be an increasing number of discourses floating around that are seeking to sideline the realities of Black oppression. The discourses are often spread by a combination of well-meaning do-gooders, misguided individuals and outright manipulators/distorters of truth. Their goal: to convince us that things are not as bad as they used to be, and that we have come a long way. I say that it is NOT for any individual outside of our lived experience to tell us how far ‘we’ have come, when they have not travelled the road we have, nor continue to live with the wounds that we live with. Their misguided attempts to convince us of a post-racial age, and to substitute and centre other forms of oppression above and against racial justice is cruel. Sadly, this is true of the Church, the body of Christ, as it is of any other institution.
Genuine narratives of critical consciousness are only possible when individuals – either designated or those that assume the role of elders within a community – are intentional in ensuring that the stories of their communities are told and that their histories are not rewritten. In the context of an African village, the role of the elders is critical, and includes the responsibility to be custodians of the culture/heritage of the tribe; to retain an existential link between the ancestors and their descendants; to offer leadership within and beyond the village.
Sadly, in the UK, Black communities seem to have forsaken the role of eldership, and we are paying a hefty price. Due to the longstanding historical and ideological mis-representation of Black communities, the material impact of losing our elders is much more far-reaching than on other communities that have lost sight of eldership. This loss manifests itself in what I have referred to in other places as ‘historical amnesia’ (losing our sense of history/self) and an ‘internalised pathology’ (hatred of one’s self/community).
The recent decision by 52% of the UK population to leave the EU offers an insight as to what transpires when elders no longer have a place in communities. Professor Anthony Reddie offered an erudite analysis of some of the factors he considered contributed to the collective mindset that led the UK to vote as it did. In a Facebook post, he suggested that ”whatever the myriad reasons that people had for voting Brexit, there is no doubt in my mind that a good deal of that was to do with British (really English) notions of exceptionalism (we are not like or indeed are better than the rest), and a melancholy for the loss of Empire and the grandeur of imperialism. Ironic that those who want to wrest control back from unelected officials governing them without any mandate to do so, often hearken back to a time when Britain did that to 23% of the world.
I wholeheartedly agree with Professor Reddie. This kind of narrative is symptomatic of a nation that has lost a sense of identity, is eager to regain it, and is clutching at straws – in other words, a nation that has forsaken its elders. The fact is that, when elders disappear or abdicate themselves from the responsibilities placed upon them, the community loses a sense of identity and descends into deeply pathological notions of itself and others. In other words, a community without elders becomes a caricature of itself and, as a consequence, both its internal and external dynamics become strained and misguided. This, I suggest, is fast becoming the story of Black British communities, and will continue to be, if we do not actively identify, embrace and honour our elders.
So what does eldership look like? Allow me to describe it this way: it looks like Jesse Williams, winner of the BET (Black Entertainment Television) 2016 Humanitarian Award. Eldership is embodied in individuals like him, who refuse to be blinded by personal privilege and self-interest, and are committed to speaking the truth, even when and where it is not wanted, in the name of Black justice and in the Black prophetic tradition. We must do likewise.
Simple, isn’t it?