Every February, we are reminded of the influence that Black Americans have had on our nation’s history through the celebration of Black History Month.
This month is not only a time to learn about what Black people have contributed to this nation through art, culture, politics, and inventions, but how we have been able to accomplish so much and remain resilient, considering that the grim reality of slavery defined our origin story in the United States and Caribbean. As believers, this month can be especially beneficial as a time to promote God’s heart for reconciliation, unity, and treating people as the dignity-filled image bearers that they are.
We’ve all heard the names of some of the more prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman. But to truly celebrate Black History Month means commemorating the heroic efforts of a man named Carter G. Woodson who is known as the father of Black history—and the eventual creator of Black History Month.
Woodson’s story is unique in that it mirrors the collective African American experience. He overcame his own set of difficulties that could have left him stagnant and hopeless but pushed through those hardships and made a huge impact on the world. Born in 1875 to enslaved and illiterate parents in Virginia, he grew up autodidactic since he couldn’t attend primary school regularly.
Despite being poor and lacking consistent schooling as a young boy, Woodson earned a bachelor’s degree, became the second Black person in history to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and wrote numerous books and publications.
Early on in his career, he soon realized that the contributions of African Americans were being seriously overlooked, and it showed in the active suppression of their accomplishments in school textbooks and other media outlets. This realization was soon solidified after he was rejected from attending any of the American Historical Association conferences because he was Black—even though he was a faithful, due-paying member of the organization. This frustration fueled him to dedicate his time to doing historical research and collecting thousands of African American artifacts and publications. Then, in 1926 his idea for Negro History Week was born.
Woodson’s goal was to showcase Black contributions, and he launched what he called Negro History Week (which later became Black History Month) for every second week of February. He summed up the purpose of the week this way:
“It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.”
Woodson’s idea to put Black accomplishments on display would soon expand, becoming an annual observance for the entire month of February in the United States.
With the racial tensions we’re still dealing with today, many people have often asked why we need a Black history month, saying that it keeps us locked in the past and fuels more division when we should be trying to unite. But for Black people, there is no celebration of the present or the future without acknowledging the past. Our desire and ability to celebrate each other is not only about uplifting our dignity but about encouraging each other through the advancements we’ve made.
When we look back on our nation’s history, we’re brought face to face with the reality that the church has had many opportunities to fight against racism but, unfortunately, has not been seen as the champion of anti-racism that it should have been. But today, the church can use Black History Month to lift its voice against the sin of racism and toward the unique livelihoods of Black lives. The church can use this month to promote Black dignity and accomplishment and to remind the world that, even through an awful history, Black people have always been made in the image of God.
Black History Month is a time to celebrate every triumph that Black people have made despite our horrid origins in the United States. Even while being stripped of our unique African and indigenous cultures, languages, families, and dignity, Black people have made a unique and significant mark on our nation’s history. With Black History Month, we have a concentrated time to reflect on pioneers of the past and current history-makers. Let’s continue to remember the past so that we can continue to influence the future.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can pursue racial unity in your community, check out Oneness Embraced with Dr. Tony Evans.
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Writer, RightNow Media
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While in seminary, I remember a young woman telling our theology professor why she felt confused about the existence of the Black church and how she didn’t understand why every church in America wasn’t diverse if we’re all supposed to believe in unity. As the only Black woman in the room, I waited to see if anyone would answer her. When no one did, not only did I feel misunderstood, but I also felt frustrated that I was the only one able to provide her with an answer.
Like the woman in my class, many people outside the Black community often misunderstand it. Some hear the term “Black church” and only think of a building filled with Black people. They raise questions about why we even need a Black church or wonder why Black churches aren’t considered problematic. We’re all supposed to be one, right?
Due to our history of racism, longstanding segregation, and cultural differences, there are many misconceptions surrounding the Black church, which ultimately cause further division among Black and white Christians.
It is possible and necessary for us to be unified, but we have to start by understanding each other.
For those outside the Black church, seeking a proper understanding of the full scope of Christian history and listening to Black voices is a great place to start.
What is the Black church?
The Black church was born out of racism and segregation. Its existence solidified in Philadelphia during the 1700s when Black Christians Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were prevented from worshipping with other members of a predominantly white congregation. In response, Allen formed the first fully independent Black denomination called the African Methodist Episcopal (or AME) Church.
Freestanding Black churches were built as segregation in the United States continued, and many historically Black churches are still in operation. When we use the term “Black Church” today, we can apply it broadly to not only the historically Black denominations like the AME, CME, and COGIC churches, but to any Christian denomination that reflects the traditions and history of the African American experience.
As much as the Black church is rooted in history, it’s also deeply cultural. As Black church communities came together, they became places of refuge. Places of simultaneous freedom and privacy. The church made a way for Black people to raise money, fight for equality together, support Black businesses, and put children through school. The Black church helped Black people not only survive through life, but experience life.
Black Christians maintained a sub-culture that was partially expressed in their church experience. This is what makes the Black church so unique and beautiful—it’s filled with its own traditions, stories, music, and preaching styles that you won’t find anywhere else.
The Black church, therefore, is not merely a religious institution, but its own entity. A culture all on its own with historical roots. It is a lesson in how racism has long-lasting consequences and serves as a reflection of life in the Black community over the course of hundreds of years.
Why We Need Black Voices
Author and historian Tiffany Gill says the Black church is one of the strongest apologetics for the power and faithfulness of the true gospel. It has survived against all odds and remained a beacon of hope for millions of people. But, the forced segregation of Black people within the Christian faith has cut us off from important Black voices. And because of this history, the voices, teachings, and leadership of white theologians have been the preferred voices of authority within our faith.
But if Christianity consists of all nations, tribes, and tongues, then white voices cannot be the standard or sole perspective for Christianity.
Who better to turn to for a theology of survival, lament, or joy in the midst of sorrow than the Black preacher? What better example of faithful endurance than those who were oppressed for centuries? How much more should we appreciate the Black church and its example of how to remain steadfast in your Christ-given identity despite the constant tearing down of your physical identity?
If we believe that God has unified us, making us all equally valuable, then we have to remain diligent in highlighting the ways that African men and women have largely shaped our theological orthodoxy and intentionally emphasize Black teachers in our books, papers, and media platforms.
So, what should we do?
Black church history is a part of Christian history. We all share the same faith and, therefore, should know and learn from the full story of how the church has experienced Christian living throughout the centuries. My hope is that one day, Black Christians will not have to carry the burden of informing others why there’s a Black church by themselves.
So in the pursuit of highlighting, listening to, and learning from the Black church and Black voices, start by recommending Black pastors, preachers, and theologians when friends or congregations ask for resources on any topic—not just race relations. Be intentional about reading books written by Black authors. Pray that God would make the pursuit of racial reconciliation evident not just in our lifestyles, but in who we listen to. Ask for grace as you check for prejudices when you naturally trust white voices over Black ones.
In your own personal study, listen to teaching from Black voices on RightNow Media, like . . .
The consequences of racism and segregation don’t have to define us—we can learn how to simultaneously appreciate what the Black church has done and collectively mourn the reason for its existence. And we can trust that understanding each other can come once we take the uncomfortable step of not choosing what is comfortable.
I am a Black woman, and I love my heritage. Any reason to celebrate African American culture delights me. Holidays like Juneteenth have always given me a deeper appreciation for my community and the accomplishments we’ve made despite our origin story in the U.S.—especially when racial tensions swell and seem never ending.
For Black people in America, Juneteenth is a time to not only rejoice and reflect, but to also acknowledge the freedom given to our enslaved ancestors who were desperate for change.
Juneteenth (short for June nineteenth) is a holiday that celebrates the end of slavery—more specifically, the ending of slavery in Texas. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, ending slavery in America. But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865—two years later—that the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, found out they were free. From then on, the formerly enslaved families of that community organized festivities on June 19 to commemorate their freedom from slavery.
Considering what the holiday represents, I think it’s important for Christians to celebrate Juneteenth. We should rejoice in the dismantling of such a horrible system. But we should also honor the holiday because we live as a unique example of what it means to walk in freedom. Every celebration can look different—and in most cases, it should. Black people celebrate based on a known and passed-down experience, while others’ celebrations are rooted in their support for the Black community. But a good place to start for all of us is with rejoicing over freedom, reflecting on our current reality, acknowledging the past, and nurturing hope for the future.
Rejoice—We are free from chattel slavery and the slavery of sin.
I typically carve out time to reflect and pray every year on Juneteenth, and I often think about the idea of freedom. I’m a Black woman who is also devoted to Christ, so I have a lineage of freedom two times over. I live in America as someone whose people were set free. And I am also no longer a slave to sin because Christ has set me free from its power. However, the two are not the same—being free from American chattel slavery is different from white Christians being free in Christ. But because Christians have a nuanced perspective on the implications of freedom, we should rejoice in our spiritual freedom and join the Black community in celebrating their freedom.
I rejoice in the fact that I get to experience life in a way that my ancestors could only ever dream of, and I know that part of that is due to God’s sovereignty. I might always wrestle with why slavery happened to us, but I trust that God is just and brings change in his perfect timing. And even though white Christians can’t rejoice in the same way I do, my hope is that they can rejoice in what God does—justice, dignity, and freedom.
Reflect—Even though we’re free, we still experience the ramifications of sin.
Even though my community is free from chattel slavery, we still fight against the racism and oppression that remain. In a similar way, Christians are free from the power of sin, but we still struggle to overcome it. We put on the full armor of God not because we weren’t given victory but because sin’s presence is still a harsh reality in our broken world. Similarly, we also must continue fighting against the sin of racism in our nation even though the law says we’re all equal.
What does it mean to be free, when the effects of slavery—both spiritually and literally—are constantly before us to witness? It’s a difficult question to think through but wrestling with it can help us appreciate the freedom God has given us.
Acknowledge—The past is part of our testimony.
As believers, we often avoid dwelling on our past sins because we can make a habit of pushing ourselves into shame rather than healthy conviction. But we’ve been called to share our testimony of how Christ has changed us, which involves telling the truth about where we were to show the world that the unbelievable is possible. Jesus can transform us. And I believe the same can be true for our nation. But we can only move forward if we acknowledge the past: the complicity of the church toward slavery, the oppression of Black people, the lasting effects of Jim Crow laws, to name a few.
The testimony of our nation’s grim history can help us see the error of its ways and show us what to avoid in the future. We know what went wrong and why. Just as we all try to learn from our past mistakes, especially as Christians, we can continue to move forward and make progress.
Hope—We can have hope for the future because Christ has the victory.
Even though looking back can help us move forward, we have to know what we’re moving toward. As believers, we know that God will make everything right one day—but in the meantime, we have to remember that he is a God of peace, justice, and love. He will not sit idly by while oppression continues to mark its territory. Our hope is that even when his actions are difficult to understand or slower than we’d expect, he is faithful to bring restoration to the world.
As you celebrate Juneteenth this year, sit with the emotions, questions, and sentiments that stir in your heart. Thank God for the freedom he’s given you, but also come boldly before him to ask for the wisdom we need to combat the remnant that sin has left in this world. He’s ready and willing to do it.
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