Why I Dig African-American History Month…

As you may know February is African-American history month. Unlike some of my white brothers and sisters (here in the South and elsewhere), I really enjoy and look forward to this month each year. As a historian (in training and hopefully one day occupation) I enjoy reading and hearing all the stories of those people, places, and events that the high school textbooks may have forgotten to include. Unfortunately this list would include many African-Americans (and kind a few women). February[1], then, is a chance to remember to rectify that mistake. True, we should be doing this work all year, but the special billing of this is a call to be better.

If this is true for American history, then it is even truer for American Christianity. African-American religiosity has from the first arrival of the first slave ship been a significant stream merging with the Puritan, Pietistic, and High Church streams to create American Christianity as it now flows through the land. My own faith group (PentecostalCharismatic) would not exist without the courage and commitment of William Seymour. As I have argued elsewhere, my own sub-grouping within P-C Christianity (Third Wave Pentecostalism) within this faith group was formed due to cross-pollination with Global South Christianity. When you understand this fact, you come to the realization that for even a white boy from suburban Birmingham (Ala.) to understand his faith he must seek to understand African-American faith (as much as he sought to understand Edwards, Asbury, Torrey, or Wimber).

Yet this fact remains almost a joke in many circles. I have encountered those who want to ask me when I think we can get White History Month.[2] Beyond that I will never forget the time I was asked to give a speech defining the place of music in worship and theology. Sure I quoted Barth and Bonhoeffer, but what got all the attention was an assertion that if one listened, even to those songs and styles one might consider inedible, one could hear the call of Christ in a wide range of places. There was a joke at the end of the talk. I set in tension a hymn from the 18th century with Kanye West’s Jesus Walks hoping to highlight the fact that despite the differences in form and meter both showed a person trying (in song) to deal with Jesus. The joke, as I saw it, was on us as here was someone deemed “outside the faith” expressing the faith in terms we might accept from an insider. The joke, as the class and professor saw it, was that I had just referred to a rapper as a theologian. After all, they all knew that rappers can’t teach us about the faith, and definitely have no thoughts other than b*****s, drank, and where to get tomorrow’s re-up. This type of thinking is wrong, horrible, and unchristian. Our Christ loved the outcast, the widow, and the orphan. I am sure that were he to walk among us, he could be found hanging with the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, the strippers, the victims of welfare, and those living in hell here.[3]

Jesus walks with them, and in a million other places off the accepted White Christian mega-Church parkway. So I encourage and implore you to get out of the nice house in the suburbs and if nothing else go to the library and find a couple of books about African-American Christians[4] and dig into the past (which is also your past). You never know what you might find.

[1] The paranoid comedian side of my personality finds it amusing or sad or frustrating that February is the shortest month of the year. Talk about a back-handed compliment.

[2] For the record, my standard reply is: “White History Month is the other 11 months of the year.” There I said it, please let this be the last time is month I say it, please.

[3] As Kanye put it in another section of Jesus Walks.

[4] Or a few rap CDs, or an all Black-casted movie (such as Red Tails in theaters now) not created by Tyler Perry.


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