Grace and peace be with you on this moment of triumph on our journey. Last weekend was the first of the annual celebration of Black History Month. It was also the fifth weekend of Ordinary Time.
As we celebrate Black history in this country, we do it not to hate but to appreciate how far God has brought us as a people in the diaspora and shed His grace on this nation through our contributions. To many, a celebration of Black history would seem antithetical to us as Catholics, but it is precisely what we must do in order to be truly Catholic.
In our “Christian nation”, there is a growing movement to ban books. Parents—the proponents of the bans—feel that racism is a thing of the past and that their children would be uncomfortable hearing these truths. They attempt to “whitewash” or sanitize Black history because they feel uncomfortable.
In Tennessee, the school board banned a book written by a young African-American woman and replaced it with “To Kill a Mockingbird”. In the latter book, the word “n****r” is used throughout, but that’s not offensive to their sensibilities. Over seventy laws have been introduced in at least thirty-six states to ban books on racism, sexism, and other social ills. Unfortunately, I can see a time when there will be a call to ban Black History Month.
But in order to ban something, you should first know about it!
The seeds of Black History Month were planted in 1915, when Carter G. Woodson—the “Father of Black history”—founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. 1926 brought the first “Negro History Week”, beginning February 7th. At the time, the fallout from the end of the Reconstruction Era had created a climate and narrative in which Black people were seen as intellectually inferior, morally bankrupt, and contributing nothing to American society.
A full appreciation of the celebration of Black History Month requires a review and a reassessment of the social and academic climate that prevailed in the Western world—and especially in North America—before 1926. It is important to recall that between 1619 and 1926, African Americans and other peoples of African descent were classified as a race that had not made any contribution to human civilization in general.
Within the public and private sector, African Americans and other peoples of African descent were continually dehumanized, relegated to the position of non-citizens, and often defined as fractions of humans. It is also estimated that between 1890 and 1925, one African American was lynched every two and a half days.
Knowledge is power, and it is sanitizing. If a people stays ignorant, then justification can be made for all kinds of atrocities. It has sullied our history. This is not of God!
If the institution of the Catholic Church desires to be “truly catholic”, then it must follow Christ’s mission to facilitate His desire for “all to be one in Him”. This makes Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:12 a mantra: “The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ.”
That passage also becomes an indictment against those who try to hurt, limit, or devalue any part of His body. And if we do not know our history, then we can even participate in our devaluation.
Here at the Church of the Transfiguration, we closed our observance of Catholic Schools Week as we officially began our celebration of Black History Month. Our schools, through the help of Black women and men and others, have helped us to learn “who we are and whose we are”. Every time we gather as the Body of Christ, we are making Black history and proving the devil a liar!
Fr. Ajani Gibson, a young African-American and newly ordained priest from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, is an embodiment of our history-making and our triumphant prayers for his vocation. His presence is also an opportunity for others to see their call to make Black history, Catholic history, and salvation history in this body of Christ.
This is what “Black excellence” and triumph look like as we continue our celebrating our breakthrough!
A version of reflection originally appeared in the bulletin of the Church of the Transfiguration last Sunday, February 6th. It is reprinted here with permission.