She replied, "The history of white people in America or the history of black people?"
I was totally taken aback. "Uhhh....both," I stammered. "It's about about the Founding Fathers."
But I couldn't stop thinking about it. My perceptive daughter was right. The American history of white people, and the American history of black people are not the same.
I grew up on U.S. history books celebrating my country's foundations. Freedom, liberty, justice, equality for all. A city on a hill. Using money with my Founding Fathers' pictures on it. Seeing their names on bridges and roads and monuments.
And yet...yet...yet....America granted freedom and equality only to some. For hundreds of years.
While us white folks celebrate the roots of our equality and freedom, our black neighbors and friends look back at an entirely different history. One of chains and oppression. For hundreds of years. In fact, in our "Christian" nation, their oppression was government and church sanctioned up until as recently as 50 years ago.
I've followed the rules of good trans-racial parenting and read my kids the books with black children and by black authors, and I've taught them African-American history. I remember the day when Grace said something to me about her "ancestors who were slaves."
I corrected her, "Oh Honey, you are not African-American; you are just African...with an American passport. Your ancestors were not slaves."
There was genuine relief on her face. "PHEW!" she said with typical childhood drama.
And for the first time, I thought about what it must be like to know that your ancestors were slaves. It was a relief to Grace to know that hers were not....so what about all those who were? As a white American, I can find a comfortable place in my country's heritage of freedom and equality. But what about those who were given no part in that? Those whose ancestors were put into chains by my ancestors? Those who often still feel those effects?
I've learned that in building a friendship, often the conversation that shifts an acquaintance to a friend is a discussion of each person's history. You can go for weeks--years even--of conversations about the present, about kids and weather and politics, and never really know a person. It's not until you start asking How do you feel about your childhood? What were your parents like? How did you meet your husband? that a friendship really starts going to another level. To really know a person, history matters.
So when we think about the racial divide in America, why do us white folks want to keep the past in the past? It's very possible that many of us may be legitimately non-racist, open to friends and co-workers and neighbors of all races and ethnicities. But yet we as a society keep hitting against this towering wall between black and white. Could it partially be because we white folks fail to acknowledge our very different histories? That our black friends don't just want to be valued as people, but to be valued as black people? That they want to contribute to society, contribute to our lives, because their histories have something important to add to our own?
We white Christians wax eloquent about racial reconciliation, and yet the Christian Church remains the most segregated institution in America. What are we doing wrong? Could it be that we are neglecting to listen, to learn, from our black brothers and sisters? Could we be missing out on something remarkable because we are unwilling to ask them, What does the gospel look like to someone with your history? How has it shaped your theology and your faith?
In his book Black and Reformed, Anthony Carter writes, "If the predominantly white church in America desires to know the reality of a providential relationship with God in the midst of oppression as repeatedly demonstrated with ancient Israel, she need only plumb the depths of the rich spiritual heritage of her darker brothers and sisters."***
Seems like we're the ones who are missing out. And in the meantime, alienating our brothers and sisters in Christ who long to be heard and understood.
It's Black History month. Do we pay attention? Do we acknowledge that many of those who share the same citizenship and neighborhoods as us have a very different history? And therefore, a very different perspective that we can learn from? And do we consider how perhaps we need to not just learn about Black History in general, but Black History in the Church?
Many say America was, and is, a Christian nation. And though I will readily agree that much of America's success came from our foundation on Christian principles, would a black Christian agree that America was a Christian nation? What are we communicating if we insist we are a Christian nation, but neglect to acknowledge that the enslavement and oppression of black people was decidedly un-Christian?
By adopting four black African children, I am giving them my American citizenship. Simply because of the color of their skin, someday my children will take on the burden that all African-Americans have shouldered for generations. I'm hoping, for their sake, that the future of America will look better than it does now. But more importantly, I hope that they won't have to look far and wide for a racially integrated church. I hope that white folks will value their perspective not just because they are American, but because they are black and they are African. I hope people will seek out my children's perspective. I know I've already learned so much by being their mom. I hope the rest of the world wants to learn from them too.
Black and Reformed: Seeing God's Sovereignty in the African-American Christian Experience.