In 1926, American historian Carter G. Woodson established Black History Week to celebrate the extraordinary contributions African Americans have made throughout the history of our nation. For many years, it was celebrated during the second week of February, until when in 1976, as part of the United States’ bicentennial, the week was expanded to an entire month.
A lot has changed since 1926. Jackie Robinson broke through the glass ceiling of segregation for baseball and pioneered equality in all major professional sports. Rosa Parks stirred a nation to justice by refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Martin Luther King Jr. helped us dream of a day when all God’s children would live in harmony, regardless of the color of their skin. Thurgood Marshall defied all odds and opened new doors when he became the Supreme Court’s first African American judge. Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor. Less than 10 years ago, Barack Obama made world history by becoming the first African American President of the United States, and in a moment, awakened a new rush of hope, not only for African American children, but truly all minority children living in the U.S. aspiring to become world leaders and world changers.
This year alone we watched Oprah Winfrey make history by becoming the first African American woman to receive the Golden Globe lifetime achievement award. In politics, more than 460 African American women alone are running for office this year. We are also making Hollywood History with the record-breaking release of The Black Panther, featuring a predominantly African American cast in a major action blockbuster with the highest number of pre-sale tickets of all time, and a record breaking opening weekend. And currently at the Winter Olympics, America’s team alone is featuring 10 black athletes.
This month, we truly celebrate the sacrifice and accomplishments of brave, intelligent, bold, resilient, compassionate, talented, and extraordinary people who have chosen the hard and toiling work of pioneering progress. But celebrating this month is only one side of the coin. We can’t celebrate significant milestones in the work of equality without recognizing that the work must continue in the face of current prejudices and divisions that exist in our society today. The work isn’t done. We see it in the latest act of violence labelled a hate crime or the current racist public remark made or the recent stats surrounding mass incarceration. We see it in the bullying and hateful words posted on Facebook pages and Instagram comments. We see it in our zip codes and our church congregations that remain unofficially and comfortably segregated. Injustice is crying out for the hard work of racial healing. We can’t merely celebrate African American History Month with remembrance; it must continue to be celebrated in the practice of racial reconciliation.
The commitment to pursue racial equality is not a new mandate thrust on this generation by the events of last year or the current heated debates in the White House and on film sets and on college campuses and in board rooms and living rooms. The call to pursue justice, the kind of justice that reconciles us to each other regardless of color and background and political views is the mandate of the Gospel.
28 And we no longer see each other in our former state—Jew or non-Jew, rich or poor,[a] male or female—because we’re all one through our union with Jesus Christ with no distinction between us.
-Galatians 3:28 The Passion Translation
The cross is the true equalizer. It’s the message and redemption of Jesus that ultimately overcomes deep seeds of racism and systematic injustices and unspoken prejudices. When we follow Jesus, and know we are children of God made in the image of God, then we begin to see that in African Americans and Native Americans, in Caucasians and Hispanics, in Asians and Pacific Islanders, and in those of mixed race lies the very image of God. When we live like children of God, we begin to treat and embrace others as fellow children- brothers and sisters divinely designed and deeply connected.
Take away the Gospel message from the fight against racism and all we are left with are endless arguments, personal offenses, outrage that breeds hate, and political correctness masking intolerance.
But when we allow our faith to fuel our conversations around race, we find not only common ground, but healing and hope. When we commit ourselves to the work of justice not because it is today’s trend but because it is a conviction of the cross, true progress begins to take shape.
So today, I wanted to expose us all to one of those conversations fueled by faith, in the hopes that it will spark within each of us, regardless of the color of our skin, a commitment to the work of both justice and reconciliation. I’ve invited three close friends of mine to share their thoughts on Black History Month, issues of injustice and their hopes for racial healing. They are each followers of Jesus, who also happen to be beautiful and brilliant African American women:
Nagela Dales is an absolute treasure, and I love our long coffees discussing anything and everything. Three things to know about Nagela: she loves God, she loves Brooklyn and she loves to laugh. As a child of an immigrant family running her own brand strategy business (her mom still doesn’t understand what she does), she’s especially passionate about creating opportunities and safe spaces for women of color from all kinds of backgrounds to explore non-traditional and creative career paths.
Saleena Lockett is one of my oldest and closest friends. She was a bridesmaid in my wedding this last November, and has been a continual source of support, encouragement and loyalty over the years. I love her dearly, and she can spout wisdom with the best of them! Saleena is also a Creative Executive in Los Angeles, CA who works to bring great storytelling to a larger community through commercial film and television production.
And then there’s Louisa Wells. Talk about an extraordinary young woman! We both serve together at Liberty Church, and she is an absolute joy to be around. Louisa Wells is a New York-based writer, stylist, and photographer. Through her photography, she loves capturing the beauty of the everyday. She enjoys making crafts and playing games with kids through New York Cares. She also has a newsletter that encourages and challenges a digital community of creatives in all aspects of their creative process. Basically, she’s kind of amazing!
I asked them a few questions and their answers were real, raw, full of faith, hope and wisdom. Buckle up, because you are about to be downloaded with some serious timely insights:
NS: Okay, friends, I want to hear from you… What does celebrating Black History Month mean to you?
SL: Black History month for me is a reminder that I don’t have to be ashamed of the color of my skin. It’s a reminder to me that many people before me achieved so many UNBELIEVABLE things despite the prejudice and oppression surrounding their skin color and although we’ve come so far, it’s up to me to continue to help us go further.
LW: It’s about honoring and celebrating those who came before us; to honor a history, a people, and a culture that is vibrant and beautiful. Black History is American history, and it is for that reason that I celebrate to acknowledge how African Americans have contributed significantly to the greater American historical narrative, when often, their stories are glossed over, or worse, left out. It’s humbling, personally, to pause and reflect; to acknowledge men and women generations before me who fought for freedoms I have that they may not have lived to see.
ND: During Black History Month, I give myself even more space to reflect on the history of people of color around the world. In the tangles of frustration, hurt and miscommunication, I sometimes don’t take the time to celebrate & remember the phenomenal resilient and incredible individuals who overcame incredible hardships, oppression and circumstances to do phenomenal things.
That yes, there is hurt and horror, but It is also an opportunity to say, “God can do it again. If He can raise up leaders who were willing to lay down their lives, bring people together to say no to a system, then how can He not do so much more in this day and age?”
NS: I love that! Yes, God can do it again! So, what are your hopes exactly for continued racial healing in the years to come?
ND: I have two hopes: More than anything I would like the Church to be a leader in this realm and for racial equality to be embedded in our hearts, culture and congregations. I think it is extremely important, especially for believers, to understand that racial equality and racism is a direct spiritual attack on self-identity. If we cannot begin to take spiritual charge of this issue – the world will not change. Hurting people will never feel whole – regardless of color. We may never see eye to eye on quite a few things as the body of Christ like who to vote for, what kind of music to listen to, etc., but we can all stand as the Church and say that racism is not acceptable.
Second, I pray for churches, government and organizations to come together to honestly look at systems that knowingly or unknowingly feed racial inequality and to start creating different process, standards and cultures.
SL: First, I hope at some point that the majority would recognize the effects of slavery, legalized oppression and discrimination and current systemic injustices that exist in our country and how those things not only affected the past, but how they continue to affect us now. With that acknowledgment, I would then hope people would be moved with compassion to undo what can be undone, and would also help create a country that could reconcile, heal and follow our laws and systems without racial prejudice and bias.
LW: My biggest hope is for more acceptance and love; not tolerance, not blissful ignorance, or an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. I desire to see us all do the work to bridge the gaps in various areas — more people of color in leadership positions; more movies, books, and art by diverse creators; more organizations and companies founded by people of color. I hope for people to be seen for who they truly are, no adjectives or prejudices attached. Whether that’s through more mentorship programs, reaching out to people in areas who may not have access to the same resources as others, or lending a hand wherever each of us can, I believe it’s possible to build upon the significant steps we have already taken to carry us farther.
NS: That’s beautiful… so what’s next? What do you believe we should be practically doing to continue to see racial healing and hope in our society today?
SL: Practically, it starts with a softening of the heart and asking God for ears to truly hear. Then we need to actively listen. We need to listen to the people in our neighborhoods, in our churches, listen to the experts who are telling us something is wrong. Find something you can get behind and support it. Volunteer, talk to your lawmakers, support a nonprofit that exists to undo what racism and systemic injustice has done to your neighborhood. Get involved with organizations that stand to increase healthy role models in the arts. At some point, we all need to move past empathy and into compassion. We all need to allow God to move us into action instead of turning the other way or saying that it’s not my problem. I think through prayer God leads us all eventually to our “practical what”.
LW: We each need to first look within and examine our own behaviors. Think about the things we say, who we interact with daily, even look at the cultural content we’re exposed to; who are the authors and creators of what we’re consuming? Who do we portray as beautiful or significant in our society? From then, we work to diversify and expand our circles. Who can we invite into our space? That’s when we need to have open discussions that allow for people to speak without fear of condemnation. Discussions that allow for each person to have their voice heard and to have their questions answered, in hopes that their perspective and understanding of those around them is expanded. We each need to take a seat at the table–whether it’s through volunteering, getting to know people we may not normally reach out to, host dinner parties and have everyone bring a neighbor or coworker, going to talks and panel discussions, or even starting a book group with a group of people and explore authors of different backgrounds and cultures. And when we take that seat, we need to put aside our preconceived notions; first listen, learn, and then move forward together.
ND: First, we need to have a vision for what we are fighting for. Speak it, practice it and live it. It’s not enough to say that racial inequality ends when we all agree with one another. Nope. What are the tangible pictures we need to hold in our head & hearts? What are the testimonies we want to hear? What is one thing we can each say is the thing I choose to fight for? For example, are you a small business owner? Well, how can you create a diverse company with individuals of different backgrounds and skills? Or are you in the arts? Then can you create a safe and creative space for people of all color to tell their stories?
Secondly, understand your local government & educate yourself. If we want to help the generations, then get involved locally! People are constantly underestimating the impact of the local government for the sensationalism of what is happening nationally. Understand your city. What are ways racial inequality affects your own community? Don’t assume there is someone else to do the job and go ahead and ask questions. You don’t have to overwhelm yourself with a dozen issues- just pick one. Pray, learn, ask questions and spark conversation about it. Ask God to help you create an action plan.
And finally, start & stop the conversation with God. At one point in time, I found myself talking more with people about race then with God. And let me tell you, that did not lead to productive conversations! Your conversation about race can’t start and stop with family members, friends or online. Your conversations about race should start and stop with God.
How are you pursuing racial reconciliation in your life? How is the Holy Spirit leading you to model Christ’s that can bring racial healing and hope to our world today? Leave a comment below and let’s cheer each other on.