We Must Have Truth Telling to Have Racial Justice | Sojourners

We Must Have Truth Telling to Have Racial Justice

Throughout my professional life, comments from white women and men in the academy and in churches would leave me speechless. I would remain silent when their comments regarding my black skin color and female presence were offensive. At times, they would give a follow up comment regarding their ability to not see color, as if I was supposed to ignore the slights and nod in agreement that colorblindness was the way to encounter people of color in general and people of African descent in particular.

Their verbal racial microagressions angered me, and still do. Surely I am not invisible. My gender and skin color is on display for the world to see.

Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial or ethnic minorities.

The history of verbal, physical, emotional, and spiritual assaults on black women in particular — and people of color in general — has caused me to preach and teach a countercultural narrative that deconstructs whiteness and its Western ideology of supremacy. I use a concept called Sankofa in order to correct, reeducate, and reconstruct a humanity that is full and complete, with all cultures and ethnic groups equally occupying the margins of our civilized world. Sankofa literally means, “Go back and get it: It’s not wrong to go back and get what you have forgotten.” The word comes from Akan, the language of 18th and 19th century Ashanti Empire, in what is now Ghana and Ivory Coast.

A Pursuit of Truth Is a Pursuit for Justice

So he said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The African American is a whole person, utilizing intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual practices that honors God. I continue to read and study the Bible from an African-centered perspective. The journey toward uncovering the truth calls me to get to the bottom of the colonial education I received as a youth.

Those who conquer lands and peoples control the narratives and historical documents.

The name Africa came into Western use through the Romans, who used the name “Africa terra” — "land of the Afri" — for the northern part of the continent.

I believe truth is transformational. Therefore, uncovering historical truths about the intentional construction of race and racism — and Europe and the United States of America’s obsession with conquering, dominating, exploiting and colonizing other established people groups and their lands — must be explored and taught to everyone if we are to dismantle and eradicate racism.

“She [He] Who Learns, Teaches” (Ethiopian Proverb)

As a result of being enrolled in a course during seminary entitled Sankofa: Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation, I began to learn more about the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws, and both South and North’s oppression of black people. Although what I was learning was important, I felt a huge gap in the history. The missing narrative was pre-colonial black African existence. Surely black Africans across the Continent had historical narratives, and I wanted to know about their dynasties, warriors, artisans, agricultural life, architectures, and how customs varied across cultures, tribes, and clans. What kind of spiritual practices did the Fulani, Maasai, Igbo, Ashanti, Wolof, Yoruba, Afer, Berber, Dogon, and Zulu have? Were their societies matrilineal, or patrilineal?

Learning and then teaching pre-colonial black Africa was a way to understand the migration and development of humanity, as well as pre-existing and established civilizations under black rule. My students began to understand what had been missing during their developmental education. They would ask, “Why isn’t this taught in schools and churches?” And they began to deconstruct and eliminate labels like “dominant culture” and “dominant narratives,” because they do not exist.

This new learning also corrected their understanding regarding stereotypes and labels imposed on African Americans as a way to negate their equality with white people. And they came to understand that cultures and historical narratives were different, but that no one’s history, ethnicity, culture, or gender was dominant over another.

There Is Healing in Truth-Telling

A countercultural narrative that is inclusive of a more accurate account of history — one that can heal and restore humanity, reconcile us to God and to one another. An article about the human journey in National Geographic:

Our species is an African one: Africa is where we first evolved, and where we have spent the majority of our time on Earth. The earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens appear in the fossil record at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago. Although earlier fossils may be found over the coming years, this is our best understanding of when and approximately where we originated.

Africa, according to most paleontologists, is considered to be the oldest inhabited territory on Earth. The first humans are known to have been located at the southernmost territory on the continent. Some archeologists have discovered fossils and remains that date back seven million years.

A genetic study published inScience Magazine in October 2012 found that the Khoisan in Southern Africa are the oldest ethnic group of modern humans, with their ancestral line originating about 100,000 years ago.

This kind of history sheds light on the existence of Africans, which, in turn, sheds light on their inherent worth as competent, intelligent, resourceful, knowledgeable, creative, and valuable human beings. Neither the history nor these qualities are commonly emphasized in the study of Africans in the academy or in the church.

God’s Truth in Plain Sight

There is a history of Christianity in Africa prior to European exploration, conquest, and colonization that gets overlooked and lost in the Euro-American narrative. Africans have been fully present and fully human since the beginnings of civilization and even to the origin of humanity itself. —L.H. Whelchel

Rev. Dr. Renita Weems, biblical scholar and ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, provides an analysis of how African American women in particular experience the Bible — that is, through a “hermeneutic of suspicion:”

The Bible is often used to marginalize women, people of color. Specific texts are unalterably hostile to the dignity and welfare of women; because of these and other similar findings religious women still identify with many of the ideals and characters found in the Bible. African American scholars have brought eloquent and impassioned charges against the Bible as an instrument of the dominant culture that was used to subjugate African American people. However, the Bible is still very influential in the African American religious life.

One who encounters and reads the Old Testament, especially the book of Genesis, are bound to know that God’s creative work is also located in the land of the blacks. Black tribes could migrate, travel, and trade throughout Assyria and Iran (Persia) by maps known to many of us in the 21st century.

The following truths should be learned and taught in all Protestant Christian churches:

  • Ethiopia is mentioned more than 40 times in the Old Testament;
  • “Ethiopia” translated means “burnt face people;” 
  • Genesis 2:11-12 connects the Pishon River with Havilah, a direct descendent of Cush (Gen. 10:7);
  • Cush is Sudan, Mizraim is Egypt, Phut is Libya, and Canaan is Palestine/Israel; and
  • The sons of Ham inhabited North and Northeast Africa and were the original inhabitants of these regions. Ham is the son of Noah, and brother of Shem and Japheth. All are of African/Eden descent.

More truths are revealed as it relates to theology and racism. As Dr. Elaine A. Robinson, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of United Methodist Studies and Theology at St. Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University states in Race and Theology:

Theology and racism remain entangled; white theology known as “theologies of privilege” has sidestepped racial considerations as irrelevant or marginal to the theological task; exposing and dismantling racism may represent the most pressing theological task of the 21st century; Theologians have an urgent calling to engage in racialized discourse and practice, uncover, analyze, and dismantle racism.

The truth is that God’s creative acts are intentional and ongoing. All humans are created in God’s image and likeness. Not some — all humanity exists as co-equal partners within creation. These are the lessons leaders can learn and then teach in order to dismantle and eradicate racist practices in the church and in society.

I encourage and invite everyone to eliminate a model of Christianity that does not include a more truthful and accurate account of all humanity. The Western approach of reading and interpreting the Bible portrays persons of African descent as subjects to be dominated. But Africans are significant contributors to biblical history, as well as world civilization. The perpetuation of racism within individuals, systems, and structures mars and distorts the image of God.

Restoration and reconciliation with God is the ultimate goal. It is the incarnate Jesus who provides the way back for humanity to be restored and reconciled to God. This is the essence of the Christian faith.

Imagine the difference in Europeans and white Americans if they were educated with a well-balanced view of humanity — one inclusive of pre-colonial history and African-centered education. Imagine the Protestant Christian church aligning itself with all cultures as equal, working toward dismantling and eradicating racism. The truth is, if we place God’s narrative at the center of life and faith, and allow humanity to exist in co-equal partnership, we can dismantle racism.

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