A few weeks ago the Every Square Inch team invited me to write about Black History Month that I thought I would reshare here. You can check out the original post and other work by the folks at ESI by clicking the link above.
In his book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois stated this about being a Black American:
“One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder… He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
While it has been a few years since I’ve read this book, that quote is one I’ve never been able to shake because in many ways it put words to an experience I’ve had my whole life. Often times it feels like I have to choose whether to be one or the other when I am in fact both. One of the reasons I love Black History Month is because it brings together the two parts of me. I can share in the celebration and struggles of blackness that I feel every day of the year with the rest of America.
A piece that I always jump at the chance to share with people is Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1963 during one of his stints in jail for protesting racism and segregation in Alabama, many of the things addressed by Dr. King are very relevant to the way we view and talk about issues pertaining to race today. The church was in many ways the nucleus of the early Civil Rights Movement and it encourages me to read the words of Dr. King and know that even back then Christians were an active part in the conversation.
4 Excerpts from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
- “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of nation opinion before it can be cured.” One of the points emphasized in Dr. King’s letter is that not all tension is bad tension. Here, King speaks to the fact that racial inequality is not new and therefore the tension people feel regarding it isn’t new either. When we are aware of this tension and are willing to talk openly about race and its role in the shaping of our country, we are able to start the process of reconciliation and healing.
- “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Our country is 152 years removed from the end of slavery (1619-1865) and 49 years removed from the end of the first wave of the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968). Within both of these chunks of time are major events that changed the course of history, but in the moment it was viewed as being in poor timing. Where would we be if the people involved in those events decided to listen to those that advised them to wait? Does wait really mean refrain because a better opportunity is coming or do we use the phrase as a way to silence those asking us to confront issues we are not ready to deal with? At what point does wait shift to never?
- “I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality…They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger lovers.” Racial reconciliation isn’t an issue that can be solved without the work of both black and white folks. During slavery, the homes of white abolitionists were used as hiding places for slaves headed for freedom by way of The Underground Railroad despite the fact that if they were caught they could be killed. During the Civil Rights Movement, white folks participated in protests, sit-ins, and freedom rides. Many were jailed, beaten, or killed right alongside their black brothers and sisters. These men and women saw the injustices around them and made the decision to risk it all because they recognized that this is an all hands on deck effort.
- “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus a extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’” Sometimes it can feel like my passion for social justice is separate from my passion for the Bible. Reading the work of Dr. King, I am always reminded that not only does social justice have biblical basis. It is a space occupied not only by Jesus’ followers, but Jesus himself.