History gives us the ability to stop and remember significant past events that have shaped the world in which we live. This is why every year the month of February is designated as Black History Month. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson initiated Black History Month to raise awareness and acknowledge the accomplishments and influential experiences of black men and women. Black history is not merely the history of African Americans; it is our history as the American people, and our history impacts the church.
In black history, we find a narrative richly woven with the themes of the gospel. It is a history that helps us to better understand God, to comprehend His plan for humanity and to see tangible evidence of His deliverance, love and blessings. Black history offers stunning examples of what unity should look like, serving as a present-day reminder of the unifying truth that Jesus spoke to both the Jews and Gentiles (Col. 3:11). It is a story filled with modern-day faith heroes who persevered for truth, sometimes to the point of death (Heb. 11).
The Bible contains countless historical narratives intended to remind us of the trials and events that shaped our spiritual heritage. Hundreds of verses in Scripture address the idea of remembrance, encouraging us to reflect upon past triumphs and tragedies and recall the God of our salvation. In chapter 4 of Joshua, God commands Joshua to set up 12 stones in remembrance of Israel’s miraculous crossing of the Jordan River. The stones would stand as an everlasting memorial to communicate to future generations the provisions of the Lord. They were the faithful witness of a faithful God who understood the propensity of humans to forget. Black History Month serves us and those who come after us much like those memorial stones. It helps us remember to show honor. It helps us remember not to repeat the past. It helps us remember to inspire hope.
Remembering the history of the many people—both black and white—whose humanitarian efforts aided the cause of blacks brings them the honor they are due. Consider Harriet Tubman, one of the many conductors who helped slaves escape from their masters to go north and find freedom. Consider the Quakers, white men and women who believed slavery to be wrong and aided the Underground Railroad alongside black leaders such as Leonard A. Grimes. Born to free parents, Grimes became pastor to a church in Boston in the late 1800s where he shepherded and shared the gospel with black men and women. By remembering and retelling their stories, we honor the courage and examples set by these individuals.
Don’t Repeat the Past
Being aware of the heartbreaking stories that populate black history helps us to not slip back into the type of thinking that may allow history to repeat itself. In 1921, Tulsa, Okla., was home to the community of Greenwood, an African American community populated by the wealthiest blacks in the United States. The community, nicknamed “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground by whites in the Tulsa Race Riots. Though 10,000 blacks were left homeless after 35 city blocks composed of over 1,200 homes were destroyed, the event was largely omitted from history books for years. The story of Greenwood is one of many. Events like these are hard to hear about, but by committing them to our memory, we help keep them from happening again. We remember in order that we will not repeat.
We remember so that the next generation will see our memorial stones and, in the hope of the gospel, strive toward shalom. When we begin appreciating a people and a culture made in the imago Dei and teach our children to do the same, we create a legacy of hope for racial reconciliation, both inside and outside the church. The history of race relations in our country causes us to feel shame, and our response to shame is often to conceal. We must not hide our history from the next generation. Standing in the shame-releasing light of the gospel, we must share it so that the next generation can learn and strive to build on and maintain the strides in racial reconciliation that have already been made. We remember in order to inspire hope.
The church’s recognition of black history ought not to be based on obligation but out of our sincere love for humanity. Our love from humanity flows from the love we have received from God in Christ. We are so interconnected as believers that to ignore black history is to ignore the imago Dei. May this month sharpen our memories so that every month is one in which we see each other as brothers and sisters.